The attempt to kill George W. Bush's Constellation Program has thrown NASA and the US space industry into chaos. If the next human to set foot on the Moon is not a US astronaut, that change will be seen by the rest of the world as a major humiliation for this country. Those who say, "Been there, done that" will be answered with, "Can't go there, can't do that."
In his testimony at the May 12th hearing, former astronaut Neil Armstrong said, "If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is allowed to simply fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that this would be in our best interest."
Although the Constellation Program may have been modestly underfunded, it was based on technological and political reality.
The new "Obama Program," however, currently proposed as a substitute for the Constellation, recommend a "flexible path" to human space exploration, yet provides no solid goals or timelines, and only a few vague promises that, with "game changing technology," NASA will someday be able to visit an asteroid or, in the very long term, send people to the moons of Mars. It is, as Apollo Astronaut Gene Cernan before a US Senate Committee on May 12th put it, "a travesty which flows against the grain of over 200 years of our history." The proposal is also based on the idea that the US cannot be the world's leader in space technology. It must now seek to subordinate its space ambitions to the international community. Even to the extent of killing off large segments of the space industry.
The Constellation Program emerged in the aftermath of the Colombia disaster of February 2003; and was called the Vision for Space Exploration. It was at first hailed as the answer to NASA's prayers -- just the sort of clear direction that many of the agency's longstanding critics had demanded. Unlike George H.W. Bush's similar Space Exploration Initiative, which was eviscerated by Congress in 1991 and 1992, the Vision was carefully planned to be acceptable to a large bipartisan majority in Congress. To achieve that, this program, renamed Constellation, had to be technologically conservative; it also had to make full use of the existing workforce and infrastructure.
The resistance to Obama's program on Capitol Hill and elsewhere is fierce. NASA Administrator Bolden has literally had to beg his own employees for support. Meanwhile, supporters and skeptics are at each others throats. The damage this is doing to personal and professional relationships inside the space industry is real and lasting.
Ever since it was created by President Eisenhower in 1958, NASA has had a powerful grip on the American imagination. As Tom Wolfe put it: " The 'space race' became a fateful test and presage of the entire Cold War conflict between the 'superpowers' the Soviet Union and the United Startes. Surveys showed that people throughout the world looked upon the competition… as a preliminary contest proving final and irresistible power to destroy." After a rough start, the Apollo Moon landing in 1969 ended the first phase of the space race with a decisive American victory. The pictures of astronauts standing next to the flag became a permanent part of America's global image. So much so, in fact, that US enemies almost always subscribe to the belief that the Moon landings were faked.
After Apollo, it became commonplace to say that NASA lost its way. On the contrary, the agency has, with remarkable tenacity, pursued an human space exploration agenda that has provided the framework for almost everything it does. First, they pursued a low-cost, safe,reliable Earth to Orbit transportation system, The Shuttle, which was supposed to provide; but due to cost-cutting by the Nixon administration and Congressional Democrats, led by Edward Kennedy and Walter Mondale in the early 1970s, it failed to live up to its potential.
The agency also wanted a Space Station as a stepping stone to the Solar System. The existing International Space Station (ISS) may not be in the ideal orbit for interplanetary exploration, but it does exist and this alone is a tribute to NASA's powerful institutional will.
A permanent base on the Moon, and eventually a manned landing on Mars, were the ultimate goals of the US space agency. President George W. Bush's Science Advisor, John Marbuger, explained what the end result would be during a speech in March 2006: "As I see it, questions about the the (NASA) Vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere or not."
The proposal to replace the shuttle with a commercial taxi service has gotten a lot of attention. The concept is not new. During the Bush administration, NASA set up the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts, the of which were to provide cargo services to the Space Station. It was hoped that later ones would be able to carry astronauts. Sadly, the firms involved have found that they needed a lot more time and money than originally planned. Whether Bolden said it or not, there is a better than even chance that at some point they will need to be bailed out.
At one time, the US-manned space program was something that the overwhelming majority of Americans could be proud of; with a few exceptions, it enjoyed strong bipartisan and popular support. It has so much visibility that many people believe it gets as much as 20 percent of the federal budget, instead of the the real number which is a little more than one-half of one percent.
Now it is the object of a nasty political squabble -- mostly between the White House and Congress as a whole, rather than between Republicans and Democrats. While a few leaders in Washington are seeking a compromise, the fight over Constellation has been getting nasty. Senator Richard Shelby (R Al.), the most eager supporter of the Moon Mission, may attach an amendment forbidding NASA to cancel the Constellation to a "must pass" military appropriations bill. This would insure the programs survival at least until 2012.
The turmoil inside the agency is costing time and money. Worse, it is biting into the necessary trust that is essential to all involved in the program. As long as people inside both NASA and its contractors are worried about the future of their jobs, and the possibility that they may be wasting their efforts either by working on the President's program or by working on Constellation, the situation is ripe for trouble.