Boys and girls, are you sitting comfortably? Good.
Once upon a time, there was a government agency tasked with a great
undertaking, landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to
the Earth. This great undertaking was successful. The government
agency, NASA, which headed up that rare endeavour, a successful
government program, was rewarded by Congress and the President, with an attempt to destroy it. That attempt, unlike the program, was almost successful.
That last attempt to destroy the Human Space Flight Program was nearly forty years ago. The only way the agency could survive was to promise everything to everyone. They would design a “space truck”, it would be nearly free to run, it would fly dozens of times a year, launch all commercial satellites, all defence satellites, build a space station, and be developed for a pittance. Indeed, it would even rescue Skylab, the mini space station that Congress condescended to allow to be built from left over Apollo hardware. This all sounded great (except to Walter Mondale). The shuttle, in the end, met almost none of these goals, but it kept America in the orbital flag pole sitting business. But it was something.
After the second, hubris caused, shuttle “accident”, President Bush
decided to end the shuttle program and build an entirely new space
infrastructure, with the express purpose of going to the Moon and then Mars. Finally, NASA had a mission to accomplish that involved more than wasting a hundred billion dollars on a space station to nowhere.
The plan wasn’t perfect, and President Bush appointed the wrong person to lead it, twice, but it was a plan, and it was beginning to come together. Sure, it was running over budget, as these things always do, and there were technical problems, as these things always have, but despite all that, we had something worthwhile to do.
Enter the Obama administration.
Senator Obama’s space policy was to “delay” the Constellation program, for five years, so he could spend the money on “education”. The senator probably didn’t know, or care, how many engineers chose that field, and managed to get their engineering degrees, because of the Apollo program, and the inspiration provided by NASA. We all know what a five year delay means, folks, it means, de-facto cancellation.
With the shuttle being retired in 2010 (later to slip to 2011) the
delay would mean not only a complete halt to US manned space flight
for at least ten years, but the destruction of the man space program’s political base.
This “plan” did not seem to survive contact with the election campaign, and the Republican candidate, John McCain. McCain, stumbling with vital election issues, like the economy, was desperatefor any issue that might provide some traction. Suddenly, candidate Obama was interested not devastating the NASA budget, but increasing it. Good news, you might think.
Well, you’d be wrong.
Margaret Thatcher coined the phrase, “You can’t turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Perhaps the President should review that speech.
In any case, after giving a rousing speech to NASA workers during the election campaign, promising that he valued what they were doing, and promising that he would continue the current program, he appointed space and aviation industry stooge, Norm Augustine to head NASA’s “death panel”. This report concluded, predictably enough, that only “private industry” could deliver space hardware at some sort of affordable budget, and that the current program was “unaffordable”. Of course, this ignores the fact that space hardware has always been produced by “private industry”. Government contractors have produced all human spaceflight hardware, since day one. The main difference here is which companies would get the money. Instead of companies skilled at producing human rated equipment, the report concluded, we should give government funding to companies with absolutely no experience in keeping humans alive and well in the most dangerous human endeavours.
Norm was shocked, shocked to discover that there wasn’t enough funding. He must have spent his entire career in aerospace sat at the bottom of a well someplace. Everyone else knows how the system works, NASA promises things at one level, and delivers them at two to three times that funding level.
Mr. Augustine’s report, of course, was intended to give the
administration cover – cover to redirect billions of taxpayer dollars to the likes of Elon Musk and other friends of the administration. This plot, and I don’t use the word lightly, would require nothing short of breaking the law, which the administration immediately set out to do, by the de facto cancelling of the Constellation program, without Congressional approval.
Members of Congress, especially members in districts that have jobs at stake, were understandably upset. Their plan to go to the moon, and provide lots of nifty pork for their districts, was in tatters. The nine BILLION dollars already spent on Constellation fell down a rat hole, and they didn’t even get a stupid tee-shirt. Many of their constituents faced layoffs, and the pork barrels were being moved elsewhere.
Where does this leave the country, and NASA? Well, Congress has
mandated that NASA, instead of abandoning all government launches to SpaceX, build a heavy launch vehicle. No one is sure what will be done with it because all moon related infrastructure has been
cancelled. Currently, NASA seems to be trying to run down the clock, presumably at the C-in-C’s orders. The country is back to a worse situation than ever before. There is no mission, no certainty, no plan and no American human access to a space station we (largely) paid for, without help from the former Soviet Union.
One day, we might go to an asteroid, or Phobos. Probably, we will go nowhere. Meanwhile, Barak Obama has shown himself to be a dissembling liar. When the history books are written marking the end of the American Empire, there will be a picture of Barak Obama and Charlie Bolden, handing over the keys.
John Many Jars is a political liberal and an American Expatriate living in England. His opposition to the President's space policy is nonpartisan.