Old Business: NASA Funding
For all who didn't know yet, on October 6 the House and Senate conferees filed a report (House Report 105-297) on H.R. 2158 and S. 1034, the VA/HUD and Independent Agencies appropriations bill for FY1998. The bill provides NASA with $13.648 billion -- $148 million more than the White House request. Funding for the space agency in 1997 totaled $13.71 billion. (Congratulations and thanks to all those space supporters who heeded the NSS call to write or e-mail your representatives from March - June asking for a stabilized NASA budget.)
The budget includes an additional $100 million for the U.S./Russian program for contingency hardware. But it does not contain authorization to transfer $150 million from the Science, Aeronautics and Technology account to pay for cost overruns associated with the International Space Station. Both provisions were originally contained in the House bill but not the Senate bill.
Human Space Flight, which includes appropriations for the shuttle program and International Space Station, received $5.506 billion, with $2.927 billion going to the space shuttle, $2.351 billion going to space station, and $2.27 million going to payload and utilization.
In the conference report, Congressional members state they are "troubled by the problems with the space station," which include: 1) projected development cost overruns of $600 - $800 million; 2) the inability to hold critical hardware delivery and launch dates despite receiving the post re-design funding profile requested by the Administration and; 3) failure to reduce the contractor team's development workforce in keeping with budget projections submitted with the 1997 and 1998 budgets."
As a result of the budgetary problems, only $230 million in additional spending for the space station is provided, although cost overruns and contingency hardware expenses are now estimated at $430 million in 1998. Without the additional funds, NASA is expected to stretch out the schedule for completion of the station.
In addition, Congress is withholding about a third of the space station funds pending the receipt of certain "documents and information," which must be approved by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees before all funding is released. Specifics include:
Negotiations are now underway on the FY 1999 budget. Funding is constrained due to the spending limits contained in the five-year balanced budget agreement. Early news reports indicate NASA's budget may be cut by as much as $1 billion. It's still early in the process and 1998 is an election year, which means there will be tremendous pressure on members to avoid deep cuts.
New Business: Space Solar Power
The House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics conducted a hearing on Friday, October 24, to examine the viability of Space Solar Power (SSP). It involves the assembly of large solar arrays in orbit that transmit "wireless" or microwave power to Earth-based collectors.
NASA and the Department of Energy extensively studied SSP technology in the 1970s, triggered by the energy crisis. The effort culminated with a reference mission that included 60 five-kilometer by ten-kilometer satellites, producing five gigawatts of power. To launch the hardware, the mission envisioned the development of a massive, fully-reusable two-stage heavy lift vehicle (250 metric tons). The 20-year mission was projected to cost more than $250 billion (1996 dollars).
John Mankins, Manager of Advanced Concepts Studies in NASA's Office of Space Flight, recounted the early history of SSP in testimony before the subcommittee. Based on the reference mission, he said "It was clear that no profitable business in any normal sense of the term could be created on this basis....a government program of this magnitude was judged unnecessary -- if not outright ridiculous -- in the absence of an impending threat to the nation."
In July of 1995, NASA funded an 18-month study to take a "fresh look" at the feasibility of generating Space Solar Power. A 243-page report was released on April 4, 1997, which provided the basis for the subcommittee hearing.
According to testimony, a modern SSP system could be developed in ten to 15 years that is economically competitive. To build the first 400 MW facility would cost an estimated $5 to $7 billion, and subsequent facilities about $10 dollars per watt. (Terrestrial power stations now generate electricity for about $3 to $4 dollars per watt plus the cost of fuel.) The study assumed space transportation costs of $125 dollars per pound.
Gregg Maryniak, President of SUNSAT Energy Council and Senior Scientist at Futron Corporation, testified at the hearing in support of SSP. He said terrestrial solar power "is particularly well suited to residential uses and for 'peak' power at the middle of the day." But it is impractical for large cities with high-density populations and industrial consumers.
"By collecting power in space on a nearly continuous basis," Maryniak said, "storage and energy density problems are solved." In addition to the collection and transmission of space solar power, the technology has other potential applications, including: 1) to provide wireless broadband connections for business and residential customers; 2) to provide wireless power transmission techniques to relay hydroelectric power between continents, and; 3) to receive power from co-orbiting platforms.
According to Maryniak, "Eventually, lightweight electrically propelled spacecraft could make rapid flights in the solar system using advanced power technologies such as low mass solar cell arrays, low cost, mass-produced power systems and wireless power transmission."
Maryniak said other countries are aggressively exploring SSP technology. "But NASA," he said, "seems fixed on the old and outmoded goal of humans to Mars, a goal which was based on the inaccurate notion that Mars was similar to Earth with an active biosphere."
About SSP, subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said it is "what NASA, as an agency, should be all about." He said the technology cries out for further research and proposed NASA "take the next measured step."
Rohrabacher voiced displeasure at NASA for having a single-minded interest in sending humans to Mars. "Planting a flag on Mars," he said, "is not a good investment." As an alternative, Rohrabacher suggested SSP "might be the next major project after the International Space Station."
According to Jerry Grey, Director of Aerospace and Science Policy at AIAA, who also testified at the hearing, SSP and a human mission to Mars are not mutually exclusive. He said "many of the key technologies needed to support human space development are also essential to an effective effort in human space exploration." This includes reliable, low-cost transportation, protection from radiation and long periods of microgravity, reliable long-life power supplies, efficient low-mass communications and data-processing technologies, and automated systems for routine operations and for nonterrestrial manufacturing and assembly.
Grey said NASA must "recognize that the development of space by humans for economic return and public access is at least as important as going to Mars." To achieve both ends, he proposed "NASA's technology advancement programs need to be coordinated (although not necessarily managed) by a single office whose responsibility is very specific: planning for and, through technology advancement, building the capability for both exploration and development."
"What is needed is not more money," Grey said, "but up-front recognition by NASA of the applicability of new space technologies to development goals, such as solar space power, as well as space exploration."
Ranking Minority member Bud Cramer (D-AL) focused his comments on space transportation costs, emphasizing NASA "needs to invest in space transportation."
Congressman Dave Weldon (R-FL) said, "There aren't many power options that can satisfy the long-term needs and concerns of the world population, but this is one that can. It doesn't harm the environment, it is essentially free power, and it pushes the envelope of our technology development."
About the "NSS Capital Capsule"
The National Space Society is an independent space advocacy group headquartered in Washington, DC. Its 25,000 members and 95 chapters support the creation of a spacefaring civilization. For more information on the NSS and our future in space, visit http://www.nss.org/.