John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter
On 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