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Deficit commission proposes axing commercial spaceflight without knowing what it is

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Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 9 rocketOn November 10 the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a body created by President Obama to find solutions to the nation’s budgetary woes, released a draft list of "illustrative" cuts that could save taxpayers $200 billion a year by 2015. Among the 58-point list (pdf) produced by Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the president of the University of North Carolina system who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, was this proposal:

Eliminate funding for commercial spaceflight. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to spend $6 billion over the next five years to spur the development of American commercial spaceflight. This subsidy to the private sector is costly, and while commercial spaceflight is a worthy goal, it is unclear why the federal government should be subsidizing the training of the potential crews of such flights. Eliminating this program would save $1.2 billion in 2015.

The proposed cut betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of "commercial spaceflight" in the document (pdf) cited by the Commission—namely, in President Obama’s 2011 budget request for NASA. The reason that the space agency planned to spend so much on commercial services is that, in Obama’s plan, NASA would for the time being get out of the business of delivering astronauts to the International Space Station and other destinations in low Earth orbit, ceding that responsibility to commercial operators.

So cutting off the private sector would essentially deprive the U.S. of its only route to space in the near term, and "the potential crews" of commercial spaceflights, whom the Commission is so concerned with subsidizing, would in fact include federal employees: NASA astronauts.

Photo of Falcon 9 rocket, one of the commercial spaceflight vehicles that could someday carry U.S. astronauts to orbit: SpaceX

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  1. 1. alflanagan 3:42 pm 11/12/2010

    This is just of a piece with the rest of the commission’s work. I’d love to know how Obama picked the members of this commission. Maybe it’s stocked with people he wanted to keep busy so they wouldn’t annoy him.

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  2. 2. RDH 4:19 pm 11/12/2010

    I hear the commission will recommend parachutes for the return trip.

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  3. 3. tharter 10:40 am 11/13/2010

    The whole commission is bullcrap. Its recommendations are both trivial and nonsensical.

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  4. 4. digitalclips 1:59 pm 11/13/2010

    I am just relieved this administration doesn’t think the World is 6000 years old, so there is hope. However, this situation needs correcting asap.

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  5. 5. Torchlake 9:12 pm 11/13/2010

    Why does everything we do comes down to Crisis Management? Seems to me that the Space program is always the whipping boy for those in Washington who don’t have a clue that other countries are gaining the VERY HIGH GROUND! Space is our future….it’s our only future!

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  6. 6. smithsomian 7:53 pm 11/14/2010

    funny, but as poor and politically motivated as this "article" is, it speaks the truth. there is a fundamental misunderstanding of "commercial spaceflight". an industry primarily funded by the Federal govt is NOT a "commercial industry" in any sense. this is just part of President Obama’s plan to co-opt the incipient commercial space industry by getting them to jump on easily available Fed $$ provided by your tax dollars at work. the industry cannot become a true private sector win without independence from pubic funding!!!!

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  7. 7. smithsomian 7:53 pm 11/14/2010

    nope. just stocked with those who would easily sign on with his plan to co-opt the potential private industrial model.

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  8. 8. smithsomian 7:55 pm 11/14/2010

    jeez, gaetano, at least stick to TR. it is NOT too dangerous – no more than early aviation. the REAL danger is the attempts by our US Fed Govt to co-opt the burgeoning private industry.

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  9. 9. RDH 9:50 am 11/15/2010

    Sec. State was already taken :)

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  10. 10. RDH 9:52 am 11/15/2010

    Please provide link(s) to previous administration that shows someone in it really believed the world was 6000 years old so we can be relieved that someone posting on this page doesn’t just believe something like that without any proof whatsoever.

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  11. 11. Rwilli60 6:20 pm 11/15/2010

    I don’t believe that digitalclips (or anyone else) said that the last administration believed that – he/she only expressed relief that the current administration doesn’t. That contrasts with many political activists and even Congressmen and Governors who in fact do believe that. (And further, do YOU have proof that NOBODY in the previous administration did?)
    Hey, this is SciAm. We should be able to read and write logically consistent statements, or there’s no hope of understanding the issues.

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  12. 12. ennui 9:02 pm 11/15/2010

    They could knock a few heads together at Nasa and tell them to use the rather inexpensive technology of the Flying Saucer, which they could have had for only $50 million, even though it had ben evaluated by the Hudson Institute at $600 Billion if the USA would have it before Russia. This time it should not be experimented on by Rocket Propulsion Engineers but by Electrical Engineers.
    When the Propulsion Engineers at Cleveland experimented they got the setting of an E-Bomb instead of that one for Gravity Control and Propulsion and caused the big black-out in 2003.
    Mr. Borden was informed of all this but thinks that a Billion Dollar rocket is the answer to a $50 Million Flying Saucer that reaches the Moon in a few hours or Mars inside one day.
    Who should have that technology now? Russia, India or China.
    The Spin-offs of the invention are too many to describe here and would create another industrial revolution.
    Too difficult for a stagnant country.

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  13. 13. Mark Heinemann 5:18 am 11/17/2010

    Since for profit space flights are only interested in the bottom line, if I was an Astronaut, I would refuse to board! America is going to be a third world nation if we continue to cut services to pay for huge tax cuts for the rich!

    Mark Heinemann
    US Veteran

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