The $10 billion NASA market

May 1, 2005
NASA’s new budget for fiscal year 2006, which begins Oct. 1, envisions spending $10 billion for new competitive opportunities with industry, academia, and the agency’s own field centers over the next five years.
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WASHINGTON - NASA’s new budget for fiscal year 2006, which begins Oct. 1, envisions spending $10 billion for new competitive opportunities with industry, academia, and the agency’s own field centers over the next five years.

Almost alone among federal agencies (outside the defense and homeland security communities) NASA had a net increase in its budget of about 2.4 percent in the coming fiscal year-from $16.07 billion this fiscal year to $16.456 billion. That’s 2.4 percent, about the rate of inflation, and the long-term plan calls for the agency’s budget to keep climbing by about that amount for the next five years, reaching $18.027 billion by 2010.

The big-ticket item is President Bush’s plan for returning humans to the Moon and then going on to explore the planets.

This so-called exploration vision added what outgoing NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe called a “delta” of $1.4 billion to the new budget. Without the exploration vision, he said, NASA’s budget would drift downward to about $15 billion a year by 2010. Nonetheless, that amounts to a backing off of about $500 million this year from the original plan, as outlined in the 2005 budget request. That downward adjustment of about $500 million a year is also projected through 2010.

NASA officials will, in effect, be working both sides of the street in the coming year as they try to return the space shuttle to flight status and complete the assembly of the International Space Station, while launching the flagship program Project Constellation to develop a new manned spacecraft, the crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, and its launch vehicle.

First demonstration flight of the CEV is scheduled for 2008 and the first manned flight will be in 2014, O’Keefe says, explaining that he expects to downselect the current eight contractor teams competing for the CEV program to two.

In a way, the current situation is reminiscent of the heady Apollo days of the 1960s. O’Keefe says the agency will competitively award 118 contracts for exploration technologies based on the 600 proposals and 5,000 letters of interest the agency has received.

What he is not saying, but what veterans of the space industry know, is that companies inside the tent now will be hard to dislodge down the road. The coming year is probably the make-or-break year for NASA and the contractor teams.

Companies planning to seek business with NASA should also be aware that the agency is consolidating its activities into just four mission directorates: Exploration Systems, Space Operations, Science, and Aeronautics Research.

This raises concerns about the status of some of the field centers that NASA inherited from the U.S. Army and NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, when the agency was created in 1958. The issue NASA will have to resolve is whether these field centers duplicate work now assigned to the mission directorates.

Among the centers reportedly being scrutinized are the Glenn Research Center outside Cleveland, which traditionally performed aircraft and rocket engine research, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where the legendary Wernher von Braun developed the rockets for the Apollo program. It has yet to be determined whether some of these traditional centers will be essential to the new vision. Moreover, these centers are objects of affection for congressmen in the surrounding districts.

Probably the most controversial issue O’Keefe had to deal with as he unveiled his final NASA budget before assuming the chancellorship of Louisiana State University is the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers have loved it, but NASA’s new budget makes it look superfluous.

In its analysis of the NASA budget request, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Md., noted that funding would develop a robotic means for deorbiting Hubble at the end of its useful life but would not pay for a servicing mission (presumably by a manned space shuttle) to extend its scientific life. This is understandably a bitter pill for astronomers to swallow.

What is really involved here is the perennial issue of manned vs. unmanned space operations. The new budget makes it clear that NASA is opting for manned operations, which get more public attention and are understandably favored by politicians.

One of AIP’s member societies, the American Physical Society (APS), last year said the as-yet-unknown cost of President Bush’s initiative to send humans to the Moon and Mars may delay or damage many of the space science community’s highest-priority missions.

The task force pointed out that the normal process for ranking astronomy and astrophysics projects, with the involvement of the science community, was bypassed. APS cited an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office that estimated the initiative could exceed current estimates by $30 billion to $62 billion over the next 15 to 20 years and thus force NASA to reprogram internal funds to meet this cost growth.

In assessing the scientific value of the Moon-Mars initiative, the APS task force acknowledged that human explorers have some advantages over robotic missions, but concluded that the use of humans could not be justified on scientific grounds.

“Returning Americans to the Moon and landing on Mars would have a powerful symbolic significance, but it would constitute only a small step in the advancement of knowledge,” the task force concluded, “since much will already be known from exploration with the robotic precursor probes that are necessary to guarantee the safety of any human mission.”

Another looming controversy that would-be NASA contractors should monitor is what the agency is calling its Prometheus project. The new budget allots $320 million-rising sharply to $779 million by 2010-to test a nuclear reactor in 2008 and fly a demonstration mission within a decade.

There is no question that future spacecraft will need more electrical power, which is already a critical limitation.

The question is really whether nuclear power is the answer. NASA has been down that road before with a program known as NERVA (for nuclear energy for rocket vehicle applications) in the 1960s. The agency got as far as orbital tests of the critical components without the nuclear fuel, but the program ran off the road when an awakened public started asking pointed questions about what the environmental effects would be if an accident occurred on the launch pad. This was even before the Three Mile Island incident, but this issue could resurface.

With these caveats in mind, the $10 billion projection does represent new opportunities for the industry and thus deserves serious attention.

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