Last week at the 28th National Space Symposium in Boulder, Colo., NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver answered questions about the agency's current diminished capability stemming from budget cuts and the recent end of the shuttle program. In every instance, Garver's answers were closer to soundbites than informative glances at NASA's future plans.
During a panel discussion with representatives from international space agencies and interviews, Garver stayed on message: NASA is advancing the cause of science and making progress in exploring the universe around us.
The agency's diminished capabilities, she said, are the result of tough economic times. Dealing with the same financial issues as the rest of the country, NASA has had to make tough decisions. It has moved to a more streamlined track, hoping to take advantage of its international partners' understanding to embark on joint projects to further understand the universe around us. The competition resulting as part of this cooperation will facilitate NASA's efforts to reduce mission costs and increase its own competitive edge, which would in turn create more jobs.
Another big item up for discussion was America's commercial space programs. Garver reaffirmed NASA's commitment to commercial space travel, saying that the agency would sooner increase its commercial crew program than change its overall approach to spaceflight. This kind of unwavering support, however, could be disastrous. If its commercial programs need more time, NASA will be forced to depend on Russia for access to the International Space Station a little longer. Already, regular commercial flights to low-Earth orbit have been delayed from 2015 to 2017.
Dependence on Russia is far from an undesirable situation. Rather, it is a fantastic example of international cooperation in space and demonstrates how far the two countries' relations have come since the Cold War. The former adversaries came together in the wake of the Columbia disaster to strike up a deal ensuring NASA's astronauts could use Soyuz as a backup method. This partnership further ensures the United States' continued participation on the International Space Station, proof that America's astronauts haven't been left in the dust.
It's partnerships like these, she said, that are enabling NASA to step back and reorganize during the transition from the shuttle to its next program. She likened the current lag to that between Apollo's end and the shuttle’s beginning; it's impossible for a new program to overlap with an old one. Currently, the agency is going through a necessary reduction of operations to reduce costs in anticipation of its future endeavors.
Just what those future endeavors are remains slightly mysterious. Garver offered no concrete answer about the agency's plans — instead she reaffirmed America's role as a space-faring nation and emphasized that NASA's primary job is to spend taxpayer dollars in a responsible way that keeps the country on the cutting edge of space exploration. When asked about private initiatives like "Penny 4 NASA" that seek to secure more funding for the agency, Garver only said that any extra funding would be well utilized, invested in technologies, and otherwise spent to foster economic growth, expansion and leadership from NASA.
Without offering any concrete plans, Garver answered questions about NASA's future with a series of soundbites. The agency will focus on destinations throughout the solar system and maintain its leadership role. It will go forward hand in hand with the private sector to advance over time. This, she said, is what makes space exploration so exciting.
But partnership and leadership alone don't have the power to inspire a nation to stand behind its space agency.
Photo: NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver speaking at the 2011 Sixth Annual Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Israel. Credit: NASA.