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House Republicans should not cut NASA for deficit reduction

The Hill logo The Hill 1/22/2023 Mark R. Whittington, opinion contributor
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One effect of the Republican takeover of the House will be a renewed push to cut the national deficit, a much needed and overdue change in policy. However, according to Space Policy Online, one deficit-cutting plan being contemplated would impose severe cuts in NASA’s budget, placing many of its programs, especially the Artemis return to the moon program, in peril. The plan would cut discretionary non-defense spending across the board, rolling it back to fiscal 2022 levels.  The plan would cut NASA spending from $25.4 billion to $24 billion.

House Republicans should think of another way of cutting the deficit and getting the budget into balance. No private company — and certainly no family — budgets by cutting everything across the board. Indeed, few if any state governments follow that practice. Instead, they prioritize. They cut lower-priority spending and leave higher priorities intact or even increase them.

It can be argued that next to the military, NASA is the most important public agency funded by the federal government. The space agency has been tasked with summoning a future in which human civilization is not limited to a single planet, but rather spread out across the solar system, accessing the vast natural and energy resources of space. NASA not only has a long-range benefit but also short-term economic impacts that help to offset its programs’ costs.

Any delay to the Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon caused by budget cuts would likely have severe impacts on America’s international standing. Such a delay would not only call into question NASA’s commitment to the program among the agency’s international and commercial partners but would run the risk that China would pull ahead in what amounts to a second race to the moon.

Congress’ decision to build the Space Launch System (SLS) with the Obama administration’s tacit acceptance after it canceled President George W. Bush’s Constellation Program has greatly increased the Artemis program’s cost. While the SLS performed magnificently during the recent Artemis I mission, the monster rocket has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule slippages.

Canceling the Space Launch System and going to more commercial solutions for returning to the moon, like the SpaceX Starship, would not work at this point. NASA’s planning already includes the SLS for the foreseeable future. Making the space agency step back and rescope Artemis missions would add years and billions of dollars to the return to the moon program in the short term. A gradual process of decoupling SLS from NASA’s deep space mission plans would probably be the way to cut costs in the long term but would not address the deficit in the near term.

The question arises, is there not waste, fraud and abuse within NASA’s budget? The problem is that such is in the eye of the beholder. What is wasteful spending to some may be necessary investments to others. The Space Launch System is a prime example. The SLS is an expensive program that has held Artemis back. However, Congress apparently mandated that the heavy lift rocket be built because it provides jobs for voters and contracts for campaign contributors. The SLS was the price Congress extracted for approving NASA’s deep space exploration program.

One other problem with cutting over $1 billion, an arbitrary figure, from the NASA budget is that it will spark a fight over where it will come from. Does the money come out of Artemis? Planetary science missions? Earth science (a favorite of the climate-change-obsessed Biden administration)? Every budget item has a constituency willing to fight to the death to defend it. The ultimate decision over what gets cut is unlikely to be decided on the merits but rather on who has the most political clout.

Cutting the deficit by cutting productive programs such as NASA would be counterproductive. Other agencies that should be protected include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institutes for Health (NIH.) Like NASA, these agencies provide value to the United States that exceed their cost. Any money spent on research and development does this. Congress should keep that fact in mind as it struggles to bring government spending and government income into balance.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

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