united states federal budget

Why SpaceX’s failure’s such a big deal:

After the Columbia disaster, President George W. Bush ordered the oncoming retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program. President Barack Obama completed this order and in 2011, NASA’s Atlantis space shuttle completed its last mission.

Since then, NASA’s had no vehicle with which to send astronauts to space. America had completed its retreat back to Earth.

NASA now pays Russia $70,000,000 per astronaut to allow Russia to put aside a seat for them when they launch to orbit.

Both pride, progress and the Ukrainian crises has led to pressure on NASA to finally develop a means to get astronauts to space again.

The political stance the U.S. adopted during the Russian annexation of Crimea led to intense tension between the two countries. NASA, Congress decided, could no longer consider them a reliable ally in their endeavors.

Soon after this tension built up, one of NASA’s most-used rockets, the ULA’s Atlas V rocket, was found to be using rocket engines from Russia known as RD-180′s.

NASA’s reliance on Russia went deeper than most people realized.

What’s worse is that the Air Force had only certified one company to launch their payloads to space: The United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Yes, the Air Force got their material to space due exclusively to Russian rocketry.

So you see this issue is really bad from a political standpoint, but all this…

…is actually good news.

If the ULA had been using entirely American rockets for the Air Force, I’m not sure Congress would’ve been under pressure to allow changes to the launch market. A lot of the people in Congress get lots of money from the aerospace industry (like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two parent companies of the ULA). 

The fact that one company had sole access to Air Force contracts for decades (yes, it was a monopoly) meant that the price to launch things to space ever since the Apollo era have only gone up. Rocket technology hasn’t really changed nor have prices dropped despite the fact that the ULA has been subsidized by U.S. taxpayers in addition to them being the only company allowed to launch Air Force (and most of NASA’s) payloads to orbit.

A month ago, SpaceX won their lawsuit against the Air Force and broke the ULA monopoly.

Both the ULA and their friends in Congress (People like Senator Shelby from Alabama) aren’t happy about this.

Additionally, NASA had to start seeking an alternate and independent method to get to space.

…and they had to do it without any significant raise in their budget.

Right now NASA’s budget is about 0.4% of the United States federal budget.

Together, President Obama and NASA came up with a plan to get NASA some new vehicles to carry their astronauts to space again - without an increased budget.

This plan is known as the Commercial Crew Program. The idea is that NASA would put some money aside to help companies seeking to make their own astronautical spaceships.

The ones showing promise would continue to get some funding and move on to the next “stage”. Eventually, NASA selected the top two competitors, Boeing and SpaceX, and awarded them contracts that contain sufficient funding to both finish their spacecrafts and carry NASA astronauts to space again.

The cost of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is about $69,000,000. This rocket will be bringing the Dragon V2 to space, a new space shuttle capable of carrying 7 astronauts. This is 1/10th the price of what NASA pays Russia to carry us into orbit.

What’s more, SpaceX has been working towards lowering the overall cost to get to space by doing something no one thought possible:

By turning their rockets into reusable vehicles, just like we reuse our cars and airplanes.

If they succeed at this then the cost will go from $10,000,000 per astronaut to get into orbit…

to just $28,571 per astronaut (the cost of fuel per person on a Falcon 9)

Yes. This would change the world.

Now, do you remember those Congresspeople and their funders from the Aerospace community?

Many of those people, for reasons beyond me, are vigorously opposed to anything the President tries to do. In addition to this, many of them aren’t happy about SpaceX’s intrusion into the previous cash cow that was the ULA monopoly on Air Force contracts.

Until SpaceX’s rocket exploded, they had an essentially perfect record and no one could stop them. Now, there’s a chink in their armor so to speak.

It’s not a big one, as space is hard and even NASA’s had their share of disasters, but I don’t expect SpaceX and the president’s political enemies to play fairly.

Even now NASA’s budget for the commercial crew contracts (which they’ve already awarded!) was cut down from the minimum requirement of $1.2 billion to $1 billion by the House and then by the Republican Senate (led largely by Ted Cruz) to $900 million.

That was before the explosion. We’ll have to see what sort of political fallout occurs now.

I’m personally still optimistic that they will make a comeback from all this, though I fully expect there to be political consequences to this setback.

(Image credit: NASA)

Ronald Reagan, who was elected president in [1980], proceeded to increase the defense budget of the United States in dramatic fashion, which—along with, beginning in 1982, the worst recession in the United States since World War II— produced record -breaking federal budget deficits. In fact, as measured in current dollars, U.S. federal budget deficits under Reagan were higher than all the deficits accumulated by all previous presidents.
— 

James L. Ray  

American Foreign Policy and Political Ambition (Kindle Locations 568-571). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Just remember that the next time that a Republican talks to you about budget deficits. Ronald Reagan not only had larger deficits than all Presidents combined from George Washington to George W Bush (the book was published in 2007) but he also Presided over the worst recession since the Great Depression, obviously not including George W Bush’s Great Recession.  

World War I would eventually cost the United States $50 billion. The federal budget grew from $742 million in 1916 to nearly $14 billion in 1918. The income tax [adopted in 1913] was needed to finance that explosion in spending … . It was sobering for Americans to contemplate that more money was being raised for the war in Europe than had been spent by the federal government in all the years since 1791.
—  Steven R. Weisman, The Great Tax Wars