How Not to Leave a Legacy

It’s kind of funny what happens when you go out of your way to NOT get bipartisan support for a marquis program — as soon as the “other guys” get into office, they turn around and gore your ox.

Back in January of 2004, President Bush proposed the Vision for Space Exploration, or VSE. The VSE was essentially a new, all-encompassing vision for the U.S. manned space program — involving retirement for the space shuttles, completion (of a sort) for the international space station, development of new launch vehicles and a new manned spacecraft to replace the shuttles, and a new proposal to set up a manned base on the moon. All heady stuff, and it was accompanied by a promise to increase NASA’s budget to pay for all the shiny new toys.

For those who have followed the politics of manned space exploration for a while, this story is a familiar one — in particular, it has a number of parallels with the first President Bush’s space proposal (the Space Exploration Initiative, SEI) from back in 1989. In the earlier case, NASA didn’t agree with the president’s proposal and (according to some perspectives, anyway) responded by over-conservatively pricing the effort — so it died from its huge potential cost and little subsequent political support from the White House. In the case of the current initiative, at least the current NASA administrator & his predecessor have been behind the president’s proposals — but again, the promised funding increases haven’t materialized, and again the White House has left the proposal to languish.

So what’s happened in the interim is that since the NASA budget as a whole hasn’t increased since 2004 (after inflation), the funding necessary to start the VSE has largely come out of NASA’s science budget — predominantly out of basic sciences (astrobiology, aeronautics, etc.). During this time, most of the inside-the-beltway resistance to this approach came from Democratic senators and representatives, but the folks on the other side of the aisle didn’t present their reshuffling of money as a partisan thing — they were just fulfilling the president’s vision.

Well, now the Democrats have control of both houses of congress, and apparently things look different to the Republicans now that they are in the minority. This time through the budget cycle (to pay the bills through fiscal year 2007), it’s the manned side of the house that’s taking the budget hit (namely, the VSE). Unfortunately, the money being pulled from NASA’s exploration budget isn’t being used to restore NASA’s science budget, it’s going to other agencies (on the bright side, at least the NSF and NIST are getting some money back). Still, it’s not all that different from what happened under the Republicans, although they present it as a partisan money grab. The Orlando Sentinel has a good editorial on this; Jeff Foust has good descriptions both at his Space Politics blog, and as an article in The Space Review. If you’re in the U.S., and want to do something about this mess, you know what to do — call your senators and representative.

Meanwhile, Bush is fighting back in the 2008 budget — NASA would get a healthy increase under his proposal, largely to fund the VSE. Interesting times lay ahead…

Disclaimer: as a political Independent, I have “no dog in this fight,” at least politically. I just lose my patience when science funding becomes a partisan issue, rather than a strategic one.

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