Finding. Space technology. The recently established Space Technology Program has carried out a roadmapping and priority-setting strategic planning process, assisted by the NRC, but the program has yet to be funded at the levels requested by the President’s budget.
The committee has examined the current NASA budget and found that it is mismatched to the current portfolio of missions, facilities, and staff. This mismatch reduces NASA’s ability to achieve the broad scope of activities it is directed to address. In addition, suboptimal effectiveness and efficiency is one byproduct of an amorphous mission statement. This problem is sometimes exacerbated when NASA pursues highly challenging technological programs (such as the space shuttle, the ISS, and the James Webb Space Telescope), with initial budgets that prove to be far too little to complete the missions. This situation occurs, in part, because the current approach to approving and funding projects incentivizes overly optimistic expectations regarding cost and schedule (NRC, 2010). In the end, if NASA fails to deliver, it earns a reputation for over-promising and underperforming. On the other hand, if a major mission meets or exceeds expectations, cost overruns may be forgotten.
There are likely to be opportunities for more cost-efficient management of the NASA budget— through, for instance, allowing NASA to adjust the size of its civil service workforce as needed, streamlining infrastructure, relying more on cost-shared partnerships, and directly addressing the factors that lead to cost overruns (NASA, 2010). However, there remains significant uncertainty as to whether NASA will be able to obtain budget increases to more effectively and efficiently implement its current program portfolio or whether programs need to be terminated or restructured in order to achieve a healthy program portfolio within the current budget level. Tighter budget constraints highlight fundamental choices within the program portfolio, particularly with regard to the relative emphasis and funding among the human exploration, space science, Earth science, aeronautics, and technology development programs. This points to the critical need for a strategic plan that has clear priorities and a transparent budget allocation process.
While robotic exploration is a necessary precursor to human exploration of, say, Mars or an asteroid, possibly decades of investment are required to overcome the extraordinary technological challenges in protecting humans transported to and from Mars (both from radiation and the effects of microgravity or partial gravity), potentially costing hundreds of billions of dollars, if not more (Weaver and Duke, 1993; NRC, 2011b). The design and development costs of a heavy-lift launch vehicle are particularly high, which is a primary reason why recent designs have evolved from legacy systems (as are both former Constellation and present Space Launch System [SLS] vehicles). In addition, launch vehicle programs are most successful and affordable when there are multiple launches to amortize the cost of infrastructure and the personnel required to build and operate them. That is problematic for the heavy-lift vehicle unless NASA can develop multiple users either internally (i.e., science programs) or externally, such as DOD or international customers. Doing so may be challenging for the simple reason that large payloads that could use the SLS tend to be expensive payloads, which are rare.
At the time of its review of NASA in October 2009, the Augustine committee stated that “no plan compatible with the FY 2010 budget permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way” (Executive Office of the President, 2009, p. 16). The Augustine committee concluded that in order for NASA to pursue a mission of sending humans beyond LEO, NASA required additional funding of $3 billion more per year. For human exploration of an asteroid and then Mars, even within a few decades, it is not clear that even $3 billion per year is sufficient.
NASA is currently engaged in public-private partnerships in which it funds industry to develop new launch vehicles and transportation systems to meet NASA requirements (currently in LEO), while giving industry a broad flexibility to design a vehicle that will meet those requirements. According to