An F-22 pilot delivers a missile to a target within a margin of inches. Images show heightened activity at a North Korean nuclear site. Astronauts send emails and videos from space. All of these things depend on orbiting U.S. satellites.
With cuts in the Department of Defense budget and the NASA shuttle program, the Obama administration may be rethinking the relationship between national security and technological domination of the outer atmosphere. A White House-commissioned blue ribbon panel is in the process of reviewing funding for the agency's space flight programs, but the space agency's overall budget will face a projected $3 billion in cuts through 2013.
NASA's shuttle program has funding for eight more launches that should be completed by 2010, though there's no firm end date. The agency's new space vehicle, Ares, won't be ready until 2014, meaning the United States will be buying tickets to space from Russia in the gap, at a hefty $51 million per astronaut. Facing little competition, the Russians raised the price from the $21 million they charged U.S. astronauts in 2006.
President Obama's focus is more on planet Earth. The White House has dragged its feet on naming a new NASA administrator, though retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden Jr. may fill that position soon. And at the same time NASA is cutting programs, the Department of Defense budget set forth by Secretary Robert Gates cuts an elite satellite communications program called TSAT, which would provide seamless communication for the defense and intelligence communities. The TSAT project fell under years of delays and escalating costs, making it an easy-to-eliminate program.
The Pentagon is also putting the nation's missile defense system on a crash diet, cutting the budget by 15 percent. Gates says the cuts will eliminate waste, but the program's supporters are worried about the system's future. "The problem with pursuing this course is that it makes the [missile defense] system provocatively weak," said Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council. "It's death by neglect."
Meanwhile, many other countries around the world that may or may not have warm feelings toward the United States are expanding their space capabilities. Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, and India are all pouring resources into space technology and have the capability of launching nuclear warheads into space. Iran launched its first satellite successfully in February.
One problem American scientists see with cutting programs now is that progress in space is only achieved through long-term planning. "I don't expect the Chinese are going to the moon to collect rocks like we did," said Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., whose district includes Cape Canaveral. "They're interested in domination. . . . The long-term consequences will be increased vulnerability of our economic system and our national defense." In 2007 China successfully tested an anti-satellite missile, penetrating the Earth's atmosphere and destroying one of its own weather satellites.
Florida lawmakers like Posey are frantic about the impending budget cuts. For them, the cuts mean potentially thousands of lost jobs (one estimate for Florida is as high as 10,000). But they don't forget to mention the perils the spaceflight gap presents to national security as Americans rely on Russia. "It puts us in a very awkward position," said Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla., whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center. Russia's $51 million price tag is particularly galling as Americans are tightening their belts, she said. "It's not a complete coincidence that the price tag is rising."
One alternative NASA has to dependence on Russia is contracting with private companies. The agency recently allocated $150 million in stimulus funding to space technology companies that have the potential to send humans to space. Two prominent contenders, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, have much lower overhead costs for spaceflight than NASA. Three of SpaceX's rocket launches failed last year, but in September the company finally got a rocket into orbit.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk seemed confident during a speech at the Wharton School last month: "It will be SpaceX or nothing for five or six years."