This afternoon (June 24, 2009) at 2:30pm Eastern Time, the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the United States Senate’s Appropriations Committee will be marking up the FY 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill. For those of you feeling lost by that sentence, the plain English translation is: this afternoon, a group of Senators will be making edits to the proposal for the amount of money to provide to NASA and other federal agencies for fiscal year 2010.
If recent history and the Washington rumor mill are accurate predictors–and they almost certainly are–one of the first things that will happen tomorrow is that these Senators will slash the $20 million NASA requested for Centennial Challenges, the Facilitated Access to the Space Environment for Technology Development and Training (FAST) program, and the Partnership Seed Fund. With near certainty, the budget for these programs will be reduced to zero.
To reduce the budget for these programs to zero would be to allow a great opportunity to pass. Each of these three programs provides an incredibly amount of value to NASA, and helps stimulate the American economy by creating or retaining high tech employment opportunities. To cite one example among many, the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, one of seven incentive prizes offered by the Centennial Challenges programs, encourages innovative American teams to develop, build, and perfect vertical takeoff and landing rocket technology of the sort that will provide tangible benefits both to NASAs return to the Moon and to a variety of other civil, commercial, and military space applications. To date, NASA has paid out $350,000; and with the X PRIZE Foundation, the Northrop Grumman Corporation, and their partners supplying the operational funding, that $350,000 is a close representation of the total cost of the program to date. For that amount of money, NASA has incentivized approximately 75,000 person hours and the equivalent of about $12,000,000 in research and development–an astonishing 35-to-1 return on each taxpayer dollar invested to date. Along the way, teams have developed impressive subsystems, helped improved our nation’s regulatory regime, and generated unique data for engineers.
One could easily list dozens of such examples for each of these programs: the SEED funds leverage taxpayer dollars by a factor of ~4 and help drive technological improvements that immediately and directly benefit each of NASA’s Mission Directorates; the FAST program provides a unique and critical opportunity for new businesses to test out their hardware in a reduced gravity environment, shepherding the creation of new industries and new technologies that will likely generate tangible benefits well beyond the confines of NASA or even the aerospace industry.
The programs accomplish amazing things on extremely small budgets. The White House has recognized this, and a Statement of Administrative Policy (PDF version) released yesterday expresses concern that these programs, which use “public-private partnerships to advance important technologies and enable access to new sources of innovation through incentive prizes and partnerships” have already been identified for cuts by the US House of Representatives.
Concerned taxpayers can help breathe new life back into these programs. To show your support, please consider making a call to your Senator and Congressperson. Tell him or her that you support these prizes, even though you cannot know for sure if the eventual prize winners will live in your home state or district. Constituent calls to any member of congress are helpful, but calls to Senators Shelby (R-AL), Mikulski (D-MD), Hutchinson (R-TX), Feinstein (D-CA), and Voinovich (R-OH) may prove particularly useful. Calls to Senator Shelby are likely the most important.
Tough economic times call for financial discipline at NASA, just like in every other agency, company, or household across the United States. One of the best ways to do so is through programs like these: highly leveraged, innovative programs that appeal across party lines and that help strengthen the American aerospace industry.