Everyone who knows me knows that I live and breathe my profession – space exploration. It has not been an easy time for those of us who chose this path. Friends and colleagues of mine have suffered or are facing layoffs as the Shuttle Program ramps down and the Constellation Program is finally terminated.
Unfortunately, we find ourselves in this situation because of a lack of leadership. Neither Congress nor the previous administration heeded the warnings that the gap between Shuttle retirement and Constellation Initial Operational Capability was growing. The GAO report that NASA had failed to close the business case was seemingly ignored.
So, just as it took Nixon to go to China, it took a Democratic president to propose a major overhaul of NASA that would focus the agency on developing the technologies and vehicles needed for sustainable exploration Beyond Earth Orbit and transition crew and cargo services to LEO, particularly the ISS that would have been abandoned under the Constellation Program, to commercial providers.
This plan was resisted fiercely by those invested in the status quo, including Houston’s own Congressional delegation. Late in 2010, Congress passed and the President signed an Authorization Act that would continue the ISS, continue development of commercial LEO service vehicles for cargo and crew, and begin development of a new heavy-lift rocket that would carry the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (essentially, the Orion capsule) and future mission modules yet to be determined.
Unfortunately, an appropriations bill was not passed before the House changed hands and the Republicans took over. Now, we are stuck in an ugly stalemate. A CR was passed that funds NASA for the remainder of FY2011 at levels less than FY2010, but it finally allowed NASA to cancel the Constellation Program. NASA has reported that the agency is not likely to be able to build a heavy-lift rocket under the budget, schedule, and technical constraints Congress has imposed. The flagship technology demonstrators that were the cornerstone of President Obama’s original plan remain vaporware.
What this ultimately comes down to is a fight over sending billions of federal dollars to the right states – like Utah, where the solid rocket boosters are manufactured, and Alabama, where the heavy-lift rocket would be designed and managed – as opposed to devising a coherent plan for space exploration. Look no further for evidence of this than the bickering over where to put the Space Shuttle Orbiters when they retire.
I’ve seen the concept for the privately-funded exhibit hall at the KSC Visitors Center for Atlantis. It is a $100 million development that will incorporate the latest in augmented reality and educational technology to bring the vehicle to life. They worked on this proposal for years, as did the Intrepid Air/Space Museum in New York to get Enterprise. By all accounts, Houston put together a lackluster proposal that largely consisted of an appeal to emotion. We didn’t do our homework and we don’t have the tourist appeal that all of the four sites selected did.
Our Congressional delegation that did nothing to extend the Shuttle program when it became clear that Constellation wouldn’t be ready on time was suddenly up-in-arms about what they said was a “clearly political” decision designed to “punish” Texas. Really?
The simple fact of the matter is that even Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker, staunch Republicans both, said the President’s original FY2011 plan was consistent with conservative principles and stood the best chance of moving our space program forward. We need strong public-private partnerships to enable NASA to do the bleeding-edge engineering R&D required to make feasible human exploration and, eventually, settlement of the other worlds in our solar system. We need commercial entities that have the freedom and incentive to lower launch costs to Low Earth Orbit. We need NASA to push the boundaries that venture capitalists and Wall Street find too risky.
It’s not that we need a specific destination.
With advanced propulsion and in-situ resource utilization, the question becomes more one of “where do we want to go?” (And I can talk more about this in another post.)
What we need is a clear mission from our political leaders and the technical freedom to create the technologies and plans to accomplish that mission within the budget provided. Right now, we don’t have that. Until we do, the way forward for NASA will remain murky and uncertain.