No one can predict what next year’s federal budget will hold in store for NASA. A medium-term recession will put pressure on Congress and the next president to make cuts in the space program. Neither John McCain nor Barak Obama have spent any political capital embracing President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, though McCain’s on the record as supporting it. Obama has made sounds about delaying it, diverting funds into science and engineering education. Whether there is any money left to divert, cuts at NASA are now a likely scenario. After all, it’s hard to imagine a trillion-dollar program for space exploration holding up during a prolonged economic downturn. Meanwhile, reports from the Ares rocket research and development program have not been promising. The shuttle fleet is scheduled to go into retirement by 2010 and American astronauts will become dependent upon third parties to get them into space.
But perhaps there is something positive to be gleaned in all of this bad news. As the Mars rovers and Phoenix lander have proven, unmanned exploration is comparatively cheap. Moreover it has been productive to space science. Relying upon the Russians Soyuz to shuttle Americans to the International Space Station may not be in the best interests of the United States long-term, but it has paid off in other ways already. As John Schwartz wrote in the New York Times last week:
Those who work side by side with their Russian counterparts say that strong relationships and mutual respect have resulted from the many years of collaboration. And they say that whatever the broader geopolitical concerns about relying on Russia for space transportation during the five years when the United States cannot get to the space station on its own rockets, they believe that the multinational partnership that built the station will hold.
Among many free-market thinkers, economic downturns are useful insofar as they eliminate, albeit painfully, failing or inefficient businesses and modes of production. If this is a viable model for business, might not it also hold true for the U.S. space program? Forced to downsize and become more efficient, NASA would turn its attention to those lower cost projects that had been secondary priorities during the boom years. Perhaps with all of this talk of international space collaboration, depleted budgets will finally provide the incentive for long-term collaboration. I do not know enough about economics or NASA politics to know if this will happen, but it’s good to have sunny moments when the forecast is calling for so much rain.