REALSPACE: President Obama’s Bold New Vision For Space Is Pretty Much The Same As His Bold Lack Of Vision For Space

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

As everyone knows, the Space Shuttle program is being retired at the end of this year. As everyone probably knows (or at least should know), President Bush the Younger openly addressed the fact that America hasn’t really been doing anything significant in space in thirty or so years, and it was time for us to get off our butts and strive again. His dad, George Senior, attempted something similar, but was summarily slapped down by congress. George Junior, however, managed to get the program passed with a surprisingly solid bipartisan support. Both Democrats and Republicans were united in this one: It’s well past time for us to do more.

The plan they adopted was called “Constellation,” which called for the development of a reusable space capsule called “Orion,” two new rockets, the “Ares I,” which would launch the Orion, and the “Ares V” which would be essentially a Saturn V-comparable cargo rocket, and a Lunar Lander called the “Altair.” The plan called for continued support for the ISS, a return to the moon by 2019, and following that, the first mission to Mars somewhere around 2031. This was all rather modestly budgeted: $40 billion over $20 years, with most of that on the front end for R&D, as opposed to the $300 Billion Shuttle program. Congress loved the idea, as I said.

The only snag was that the system wouldn’t be up and running by the time the Shuttles were retired. The first Orion wouldn’t be ready to fly until 2014, a break of four years during which we’d be unable to put a person in space ourselves, we’d have to bum rides off of the Russians. This is lamentable, but it’s happened before - there were no manned American launches from the Apollo/Soyuz mission in 1975 until the first Shuttle flight in 1981. There were a number scheduled, of course, but Carter killed ‘em all with the vague mention of “Budgetary problems.” From then until now, we’ve been pretty consistent in space, excepting two breaks of three years each following our various Shuttle Disasters.

Back during the election in ‘08, Obama repeatedly stated that if elected, he’d support a “Postponement” of Orion development for five years, in essence pushing the initial launch date back to 2019, and effectively keeping us out of space for a decade. Like Carter before him - and is it just me, or is Obama turning into a Carter revividus? - he’s cited budgetary problems. Like Carter before him, there unquestionably *are* budgetary problems, but just like Carter, killing the manned space program isn’t going to solve any of them. Compared to other government programs - Hope for Homeowners, for instance, which is a $300 billion dollar program which has, to date, helped exactly three families who couldn’t afford homes get homes - or our new Universal Heath Care, or the Cash for Clunkers program, or the GM Bailout - the mere $40 Billion for Constellation was a mere pittance. It was, however, a high-profile pittance, and he decided to target it.

Make no bones about it, by the way, but “Postponement” equals “Cancellation” when you’re dealing with massive high-tech projects like this. To develop spacecraft and large rockets is amazingly expensive, and the aerospace corporations that do the work divert resources for years or decades, in hopes that they’ll make back their investment when the system goes in to operation. They prepare factories, train assembly lines, shut down some facilities to re-tool them, this isn’t a magic-wand situation, it takes a lot of time, effort, money, and faith, most of which the companies foot themselves. Already financially overextended, they simply can not afford to *keep* overextended for half a decade. They’ll have to re-allocate people and resources and production facilities to other jobs, which, of course, means they can’t do Constellation. “Postponement” thus is a polite way of saying “I’m killing it, all you high-tech people we promised money and jobs? You can go home.” If and when we ever came back to Constellation, we’d have to start over almost completely from scratch.

Sure enough, Obama more or less immediately pitched his bold vision for doing nothing in space. Congress - in a rare current example of bipartisan support - said that was crazy talk, and voted against it. Irritated, the president started a commission which “reviewed” NASA and Constellation, and then surprisingly presented a bold new vision for doing nothing in space. In essence it said “Kill Constellation,” abandon any plans to go to the moon or Mars, and work towards maybe someday going to near-earth Asteroids. We’ll bum rides to orbit off the Russians. Oh, and in the meantime, Private Industry should step up and put people in space on their own. Yeah! That’s it! And if they don‘t do it, well, it‘s their fault, not ours.” (I paraphrase)

This was proposed to Congress, who, once again regarded it as crazy talk. One Democratic senator - and forgive me, I can’t remember his name at this moment - actually said to the press, “Why are we even discussing this again? We agreed on a plan five years ago, nothing has changed, let’s just follow that!”

Following this, president Obama issued his Fiscal Year 2010/11 Federal Budget which contained no funding whatsoever for Constellation, effectively killing it by Fiat *without* any support from Congress.

NASA has been desperately trying to put a positive spin on this - “Hooray! We’re loosing 9000 jobs in Florida alone! We’ll be loosing 30,000 high-paid jobs throughout the rest of the country! Our new mission is, evidently, paying for a space station we can no longer get to, and doing elementary school education!” - but there’s really no way to polish this turd. Everyone, everyone, everyone, except the most fanatical of the Obamanation were disgusted by this. Old Guard astronauts called it a disaster Democratic senators opposed it, Republican Senators opposed it. The House opposed it. The Russians opposed it, our partners in the ISS opposed it. It was a unilateral decision without even the pretense of debate that has actually stirred up a surprising amount of tension with countries that were depending on us, and for no good reason whatsoever.

The Russians announced that they’d be glad to take our astronauts to the ISS, but the new ticket price was $50 million a person. Granted, they took us up at a financial loss to themselves following the Columbia disaster, but that was a case of a partner pitching in to help us recover from a disaster, not a long-term thing. A cold-hearted decision to not even try anymore is completely different, but evidently the President’s people didn’t think about that. Frankly, the Russians are right to gouge us. It would be non-capitalist not to. We’re not incapable, we’re just lazy.

Realizing that he’d reaped a PR nightmare, Obama has recently started backpedaling, culminating in his speech last night outlining his “Bold New Vision” which - no real surprise here - is pretty much the same as the vision his commission proposed last year.” Constellation is still dead, but he’ll grudgingly allow the development of the Orion to continue. They’ll support the development of a new rocket - but evidently not the Ares I or the Ares V - There’s the mission to Near Earth Asteroids, and some pipe-dream talk about “Orbiting” but not *landing* on Mars in the mid-2030s.

In essence, apart from the continuation of Orion development, it’s the exact same plan. In essence, the president has considered all the options, ignored them, and decided to do what he wanted to do from the start: nothing. Whomever picks up the torch two or six years from now will have *no* manned space program, and will be inheriting an unmanned program that’s in third place, internationally, only somewhat ahead of France and considerably behind Russia and China.

I begin to see the methodology in all this: He wanted to do his “Augustine Commission” plan. Everyone told him it was stupid, and so he killed funding, then offered them the Augustine plan again. Faced with a choice between starvation and mere malnutrition, which would you choose? He’s herded us into a corner. Clever politics, but a very, very, very bad decision.

What’s curious because we’ve already spent $10 Billion dollars on the development of them, and even done a test launch of a semi-boilerplate Ares I last year. What’s more, both rockets rely on existing Shuttle technology - the Shuttle Maine Engines and the Solid Rocket Boosters for the Ares V, and the Solid Rockets themselves for the Ares I. In essence, we’re throwing away the $10 billion we’ve already spent *AND* the existing technology, since Thikol can’t afford to keep factories ready for production if they’re not actually producing anything or getting paid.

Curiouser still: Though this is allegedly a money-saving move, NASA’s budget is actually going *up* by Six Billion dollars. What? No, seriously, what? You can find an additional six billion in the budget to do nothing, but you can’t *keep* the money that’s *already been allotted* for a project that’s already underway?

I *do* think that a mission to a near-earth asteroid is a good thing. Asteroids are interesting, and we know very little about them, it’s definitely something we should look into. I’m not sure that it’s worth sending people to do it, however, when it would be cheaper, easier, and safer to send an unmanned probe, probably a sample-return probe. Why risk people on something like that, aside from saying “Hey, look! We’re actually doing something! No, really!” And while that’s commendable - a little of something is better than all of nothing - the fact remains that setting sail on the open ocean with the express purpose of setting foot on a drifting iceberg is nowhere near as ambitious - nor as rewarding - as crossing the ocean and visiting another land entirely.

The question remains: why is the president doing this? Clearly the decision makes no rational nor budgetary sense. It can’t be an ideological position, since most of his own party oppose it. So why? If I may be allowed to theorize a bit, I suspect it’s because Obama made a lot of promises during his campaign, and it’s taken him half his term in office to get *one* of them through, one of questionable popularity and fiscal responsibility at that. He started this process long before his health care plan passed. It could be that it was a pyrrhic thing for him at that time - he was blocked on every front on every decision (I myself have joked about how Obama’s first term was basically George Bush’s third term) - but space was relatively undefended. Maybe he killed it simply because he *could* kill it, because he *needed* to kill something, because his ego demanded that he keep at least one of his campaign promises, no matter how short-sighted and self-destructive it was.

“Ah,” you say, “But we are doing something! He’s got a plan.” No, he doesn’t. We had a plan. Now we only have words. Saying “We’re going to do this in twenty years or so” is every bit as ephemeral as Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration ended up being when Obama took office: It’s just words, just an unbelievably expensive pile of soap bubbles, nothing of any real substance whatsoever. So he gets his way: he substitutes promises that won’t come due until long after he’s out of office, and in the short term he gets to kill off the manned space program.

And so that’s it. We give up. We’re doomed. Meanwhile, China is ramping up to launch their own space station early next year.

The full text of the president’s plan is here

You know what? You know what? Screw it. I’m sick of this. I’m sick of NASA being at the beck and call of administrations who don’t get it or don’t care, of a Congress that spent decades refusing to cough up money. I’m sick of the lack of vision, of the ocean of rhetoric designed only to hide the fact that we’re doing nothing in the most expensive fashion imaginable.

Let’s just start our own space agency.

No, seriously: We’ll go to Guyana, lease some land on the coast, sell stock, build some launch facilities, and license rocket and spacecraft technology the US Federal Government, copy it, and then evolve our own stuff from there. If they won’t do it - and they’re soreheads, so they probably won’t - then we’ll get it from the Russians. We’ll copy their stuff, modify it eventually, and develop our own manned space agency.

Now is the perfect time to do it: The president claims he wants private industry to step up - though of course he really doesn’t - so let’s force him to practice what he preaches. Let’s start our own publicly-traded non-governmental manned space agency. Lets compete with NASA for commercial launches, take business away from them. Let’s help Bigelow build their space hotel, and ferry people to and from it. Certainly there’s no shortage of rocket scientists and spacecraft engineers who’ll be looking for work come January. Certainly there’s no shortage of trained astronauts who’ll have nothing to do for the rest of their careers.

Let’s do it. Let’s go to the moon, find some kind of cash crop, and make a profit doing it. Let’s actually move humanity out through space ourselves without relying on government handouts and subjecting ourselves to government control. Let’s not build space stations, let’s build space colonies. Lets get our species off this rock and firmly established on other rocks.

In the absence of any vision from our leaders, let’s substitute our *own* vision. Let’s do it ourselves, and make money at it. Because regardless of whatever crap the president is pushing, doing it ourselves is the American way.