Speakers cited both internal and external factors that can affect budget realism. Among the former are the impacts of project delays, the adequacy of contingency funds to cover technical risks, pressures for full employment at all NASA centers, and “management turbulence” that elicits defensive behavior throughout an organization when resources are seen as being both tight and threatened. External factors cited that might impact budget realism, and thereby program sustainability, included the capacity to respond to emerging policy drivers (e.g., rising competition from China and India and the emergence of concerns about climate and energy as major global issues), likely continued federal budget deficits, and potential congressional opposition to U.S. reliance on Russia during an extended launch hiatus after the space shuttle is retired.
The concept of leadership played into discussions of sustainability in at least three ways. Some participants argued that strong leadership at the senior levels of NASA and the government is an essential factor in planning, articulating, and promoting NASA’s program. In this context, some speakers viewed as a matter of considerable urgency the need for senior leaders to face up to what was described as a program that cannot be executed within the allotted budget. Second, there were calls for members of the space community, both inside and outside the government, to lead by establishing credible program cost estimates and carrying out programs within realistic budgets. Third, several participants argued that a space program that puts the United States in an international leadership role would have the greatest national impact and public support.
While some speakers expressed frustration over what was perceived to be an unrealistic current plan, some also posited that arguments can be made for increasing NASA’s budget. One speaker recalled that in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, when NASA was trying to cope with the impacts of the Challenger accident and near-simultaneous failures of all major expendable launch vehicles, the agency was successful in securing additional funds that were important across multiple parts of NASA’s program. Securing larger budgets required convincing arguments. This outcome was illustrated by a colloquy between two participants in which one suggested that the current situation is as if “we’re a group of people having dinner and there wasn’t enough food. Then we brought in a 300-lb visitor …. The best solution would be more food,” to which a colleague replied, “And if your visitor were important enough, you might get it.”
Participants offered diverse opinions about the relative leadership roles of NASA and the scientific community in achieving and operating within affordable budgets. Some noted that it has been common practice has been for NASA to ask the community to recommend the best science and then leave the determination of how to accomplish that science to NASA. Others cited experiences in which active participation by the outside community had led to important successes in bringing or keeping projects within realistic bounds. Examples of the latter included Earth science community efforts in the 1990s to define an affordable Earth Observing System program; Mars Science Laboratory science team efforts to bring the mission cost back within budget limits; and the recent National Research Council (NRC) assessment of candidates for Beyond Einstein program missions, a study that included engineers, managers, and cost experts working alongside scientists on the committee.1
International leadership as a central motivating factor for the civil space program was also a recurring theme. One speaker noted that a country might strive to exercise leadership in space for two different reasons—for prestige or for “techno-nationalism” (i.e., using technology to support national and geopolitical interests). Some speakers suggested that space-related efforts in many parts of the world have been influenced by what the United States undertakes; if the United States does it, others want to do so as well. Although there were differing opinions voiced about whether China poses a threat to U.S. leadership in space, several speakers argued that if the public saw China as having somehow taken the lead, there