Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2014 to 2023 Office: Eliminate Human Space Exploration Programs

Status Report From: Congressional Budget Office
Posted: Monday, November 18, 2013

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Discretionary Spending--Option 11 Eliminate Human Space Exploration Programs

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Human Exploration and Operations programs focus on developing systems and capabilities required to explore deep space while continuing operations in low- Earth orbit. The exploration programs fund research and development of the next generation of systems for deep space exploration and provide technical and financial support to the commercial space industry. Complementing those efforts, NASA's space operations programs involve operating in low-Earth orbit, most notably using the International Space Station, as well as providing space communications capabilities.

This option would terminate NASA's human space exploration and space operations programs, except for those necessary to meet space communications needs (such as communication with the Hubble Space Telescope). The agency's science and aeronautics programs and robotic space missions would continue. Eliminating those human space programs would save $73 billion between 2015 and 2023, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The main argument for this option is that increased capabilities in electronics and information technology have generally reduced the need for humans to fly space missions. The scientific instruments used to gather knowledge in space rely much less (or not at all) on nearby humans to operate them. NASA and other federal agencies have increasingly adopted that approach in their activities on Earth, using robots to perform missions without putting humans in harm's way. For example, NASA has been using remotely piloted vehicles to track hurricanes over the Atlantic Ocean at much longer distances than those for which tracking aircraft are conventionally piloted.

Eliminating humans from spaceflights would avoid risk to human life and would decrease the cost of space exploration by reducing the weight and complexity of the vehicles needed for the missions. (Unlike instruments, humans need water, air, food, space to move around in, and rest.) In addition, by replacing people with instruments, the missions could be made one way -- return would be necessary only when the mission required it, such as to collect samples for further analysis -- thus eliminating the cost, weight, and complexity of return and reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

A major argument against this option is that eliminating human spaceflight from the orbits near Earth would end the technical progress necessary to prepare for human missions to Mars (even though those missions are at least decades away). Moreover, if, in the future, robotic missions proved too limiting, then human space efforts would have to be restarted. Another argument against this option is that there may be some scientific advantage to having humans at the International Space Station to conduct experiments in microgravity that could not be carried out in other, less costly, ways. (However, the International Space Station is currently scheduled to be retired in 2020, postponed from an earlier decommissioning in 2015.)


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