We Must Renew Our Investment in Space

08/05/2009 10:14

We Must Renew Investment in Space
Letter from Space Foundation CEO to Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee Chair

This month's The View from Here is a reprint of a letter sent to Norman Augustine, chairman of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee from Space Foundation Chief Executive Officer Elliot Pulham. The committee, which comprises a broad spectrum of space experts and was chartered by President Barack Obama, has been charged with examining ongoing and planned NASA development activities and presenting options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program following the space shuttle's retirement in 2010. The committee will present its results in time to support an administration decision on the way forward by August 2009.

Dear Norm,
I am writing at the urging of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Rep. Pete Olson, Chair and Ranking Member of the House Space & Aeronautics Subcommittee, respectively, to share with you the views of the Space Foundation as your panel considers the future of NASA and human spaceflight. In particular, I write to urge you to consider the larger issue of the value of our nation's investment in NASA and civil space. I hope that your committee will do more than simply review options for human spaceflight "within the current budget/NASA funding plan." The larger question that faces us as a nation is whether our investment in space is at all adequate to keep the United States competitive going forward. We at the Space Foundation have long argued the position recently articulated by Gen. Lester Lyles, USAF (Ret) and his committee - that NASA has been over-tasked and under-funded for more than two decades, and that we must renew our investment in space if we are to rise above "the gathering storm" and be respected, competitive, and secure for the future. At issue is much more than the question of the effectiveness of the currently proposed exploration architecture. We must ask if we recognize the value of U.S. leadership in space, and whether we are willing to cede that leadership by continuing to under-fund the nation's civil space programs.

The Space Foundation has long advocated that the MINIMUM U.S. investment in NASA/civil space should be at least 1 percent of the federal budget. As you know, for the past two decades our investment has hovered at around 6/10s of 1 percent of the federal budget. While the difference between 0.6 percent and 1 percent seems trivial, in the landscape of the U.S. federal budget this change would represent a dramatic difference in what the U.S. can accomplish in space.

Ask the average American how much of the federal budget is devoted to NASA, and you're likely to get a response in the range of 10, 12, 15 percent - or more. When people learn that less than 7/10s of one penny of each federal budget dollar goes to NASA, they are almost universally surprised, if not appalled. When we broaden our viewpoint to consider all U.S. civil space spending (NOAA, NSF, FAA), our federal investment is still significantly less than 8/10s of 1 cent of every tax dollar. To paraphrase Winston Churchill - perhaps never in the course of human history was so much gained by so many from so little.

The return on our national investment in civil space is enormous by any measure. Space exploration has advanced telecommunications, aviation, navigation, weather forecasting, agriculture, medical technology, computing, entertainment, commerce, and a whole host of other industries. Many of these capabilities and technologies we have developed through space exploration likely would not have been developed in its absence, even with targeted investments of similar scale.

As a direct result of the innovations, inventions and discoveries that have enabled us to explore space, our daily lives on Earth have been profoundly transformed. Yet these transformations have become so ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to imagine life without them. Even more, what we have gained from our investments in space have become so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our everyday lives that, in many cases, they have become all but invisible.

We take for granted our leadership in technology and our high standard of living without pausing to think about the history of investment in space research and development that has driven us forward for the past five decades. We did not get to this position of world leadership by accident. Rather, it required a thoughtful and sometimes politically difficult commitment to invest in our national future through space exploration and development.

Greg Stene, a professor at Wichita State University, turning Santayana's famous quote on its head, maintains, "Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We remember the past well and remind ourselves often of long gone civilizations whose innovations in science, technology, and learning yielded knowledge that served as beacons of brilliance, but who lost the spark, and faded. One example is the Arab "Golden Age" (750-1258 A.D.) that witnessed great advances in science, mathematics, technology, and medicine and preserved much of the learning from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. China, whose innovations from the 12th through 15th centuries eclipsed anything else in the world and yielded, among other things, solid rocket fuel, matches, a magnetic compass, sliding calipers, piston pumps, paper, printing presses, suspension bridges, and a fabulous fleet of ships for exploration, provides another example. But, through bad policy choices, a loss of will, or cultural dynamics, these golden societies lost their once proud leadership positions and their brilliance was eclipsed.

We also remember another past, one more recent, popularly referred to as the "Space Age." Spurred by a "satellite gap" and "space race" with our Cold War adversary, we made a national commitment to space that propelled us to achieve accomplishments that were solely the province of fantasy, dreams, and fiction throughout our entire previous history. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to step onto another celestial body, they led the way for all humanity. This accomplishment became the cultural reference point for the "can-do" ability to achieve virtually anything. How often have you heard, or even said the words yourself, "If we can put a man on the moon...?" Our national pride in "Yankee ingenuity" and cultural heritage as pioneers evolved into a new identity as space-faring people -- forward-looking innovators pushing the frontier of human knowledge and technology -- building a better future and brighter tomorrow. I would encourage you and your committee to view the many personal messages that have been posted to our Space Foundation web site by people remembering the impact that the Apollo 11 landing had on their lives (see related Space Watch article). It is this kind of national impact and sense of purpose that we should seek to rekindle by restoring meaningful funding to NASA.

Today we are living in that better future and brighter tomorrow. But we are doing so on the dividends of investments long ago relegated to history books. We are at risk of doing what our pioneer forbearers might have referred to as "eating our seed corn." No one questions that the emergent markets of the 21st century are going to be scientifically and technologically driven. The question is who will have made the investments required to be competitive?

The United States is by any measure a great nation. But even a great nation has to balance the many demands for resources among legitimate competing priorities. This competition for resources is intense now and promises to become even more ferocious in the future with every fraction of every penny of every budget dollar scrutinized and contested. That is why when we make these hard choices we must be sure to invest in priorities with the greatest potential to provide the best return. Increased investment in America's civil space programs at NASA, NOAA, FAA, and the NSF is just such an investment. It can have a profound and positive effect on U.S. competitiveness and technology leadership, as well as our nation's status as a leader among nations. Clearly, we are now at a crossroads where investment in civil space is imperative.

In view of the strength with which these themes resonated in the research and development of our publication - The Case for Space Exploration - the Space Foundation has for some years been compelled to advocate a "One Percent Solution" - funding civil space efforts at a minimum of 1 percent of the federal budget each year. This "One Percent Solution" would not be limited to NASA. Civilian space research and exploration is too fundamentally important to our nation's future to be restricted to one agency.

We have encouraged federal policymakers and Congress to look at expanding civilian space efforts in and beyond NASA and encouraging more diverse space efforts in the portfolios of NOAA, NSF and even the FAA. Perhaps NOAA can take on more earth science and spacecraft development. Maybe it is now time for the NSF to devote a portion of its grants to space efforts undertaken by America's universities. With FAA looking increasingly into civil passenger travel into space, it may be time they fund some of our nation's space efforts. And perhaps it is time for other more non-traditional space agencies to begin funding programs that would contribute meaningfully to their missions such as the DOE, DHS and EPA.

Although a mere 3/10s or 4/10s of a penny on the dollar more than we are currently spending, funding civil space at no less than 1 percent of the federal budget is an investment that represents a bold step forward in securing a bright future for our nation.This increase will fundamentally influence U.S. competitiveness and technology in the following ways:

  • Accelerate development of new human spaceflight capabilities on a more urgent and timely basis while completing our space shuttle and international space station obligations without compromise. (As a nation, we should be appalled that we will soon be without a domestic capability to launch humans into space. It should be unacceptable that only China and Russia will have that capability for any length of time.)
  • Ensure continued robust funding for space science, particularly astronomy and robotic exploration of the solar system.
  • Permit more robust pursuit of aeronautical research and development efforts that contribute to U.S. strength and competitiveness in aeronautics.
  • Extend the reach of space technology into new programs and missions.

The Space Foundation believes the "One Percent Solution" provides the minimum sufficient resources to pursue these critical missions in a meaningful way that enhances U.S. competitiveness. We do not advocate specific line-item amounts for any particular enterprise, but instead recommend that the administration work closely with leadership in the Congress to ensure our civil space programs bring a balanced and robust U.S. capability to each of the challenges of this new century.

Norm, as always, I thank you for your leadership and your service to our nation. Do not hesitate to contact me if the Space Foundation can assist you and your committee in any way. We very much appreciate everything you do to make our nation stronger.

Warm personal regards, 

Elliot Holokauahi Pulham
Chief Executive Officer