NASA Watch has a post up today on what a Romney space policy would look like. Since his advisors seem to be split into pro-SLS/Constellation and pro-NewSpace camps, the answer is "anyone's guess". Given that there is very little evidence that Romney has even given much thought to the space program at all - other than to blast Newt Gingrich's proposed lunar colony - it's likely that this is not simply obfuscation. Romney doesn't know himself.
But to the extent that Romney has hitched himself to the Paul Ryan budget bandwagon - and Romney endorsed it before naming Ryan as his running mate - perhaps it is worth pondering what the budgetary environment would look like for NASA under Ryan-derived budget scenarios.
SpacePolicyOnline notes that NASA's non-aeronautics activities are in the same budget category as the the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's science programs. In the near term under a Ryan budget this category (technically known as "function 250") would be allocated a little more than $1 billion less than the Obama budget.
Given the strong and organized constituencies in support of NSF and to a lesser extent DOE, it is likely that the lower allocation would hit NASA very hard - perhaps even disproportionately so. Looking out over a longer 10-year period, a Washington Post analysis indicates that the total allocation for function 250 is six percent less in the Ryan budget compared to baseline. Whether one supports SLS or NewSpace (which requires NASA to be, at the very least, a key customer), even a watered-down version of Ryan budget is virtually certain to undermine efforts to re-establish a robust U.S. space program.
It's almost impossible to escape the conclusion that the Ryan approach is truly radical: energetic tax cuts, increased defense spending, and significant cuts or restructuring to entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. What's less widely discussed is the Ryan emphasis on cutting discretionary programs - which include all non-defense related spending on space, science, and technology. A CBO study found that the Ryan budget would result in cuts to all discretionary spending from 12.5% of GDP in 2011 to 5.75% in 2030 and 3.75% in 2050. Unless one believes the Ryan plan is some kind of magic economic growth formula that will increase GDP growth to 7 or 8% a year for the next 40 years, that is what's known as a drastic budget cut.
The New Yorker's James Surowiecki notes that the Ryan plan would
reduce federal spending to its lowest point, as a percentage of G.D.P., since 1951. And since an aging population, with rising health-care costs, means that a hefty chunk of government spending will be going to retirement and health-care benefits, hitting Ryan’s target would require drastically shrinking everything else.
It was, after all, Newt Gingrich who called the Ryan plan "right-wing social engineering" and "suicidal" (though specifically he was talking about its cuts to entitlement programs, and to the political implications for Republicans who endorse it).
And so granted, this is all something of a thought experiment since for what it's worth: A. at this moment in the campaign it still seems more likely than not that Obama will be re-elected; B. even if Romney/Ryan are elected, that does not mean Ryan priorities would become Romney's policy; and C. even if they were, given the realities of U.S. politics it is unlikely that Ryan priorities would remain in effect beyond their term of office.
But any of the A, B, or C scenarios still have important implications for space. Much damage can be wrought by cavalier approaches. Some people conveniently forget that not so long ago the U.S. government ran budget surpluses. It could do so again with more sensible policies - and those don't require radical or Procrustean solutions.
But for purposes of this analysis, in some sense it's irrelevant whether Romney would come down as pro-SLS or pro-NewSpace. What would matter is what kind of budget stance he takes. Budgets drive all. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.
Read the NASA Watch piece after the jump.
Image courtesy: Philosophy of Science Portal