Perhaps the primary goal of the Obama administration's 2011 budget NASA proposal was to kill, once and for all, the Apollo Moon mission model that has determined the way the US space agency operates for nearly the last 60 years.
The so-called compromise proposal that unanimously passed the Senate Commerce Committee on July 15th gutted most of the Obama proposal. The House version does even more damage to the administration's proposal. While the Bush era Constellation program would seem to be dead, at least in name, its substance has survived for at least another year. There is a lesson here, not only for those who would reform NASA, but also for those who want to reform any reasonably sized government agency.
The first lesson is: Do not ignore Congress. NASA as it exists is the product of decades of Congressional action. Reformers may believe that they know what the agency needs, but without Congressional support, they have no hope of making a difference; all they can achieve is to demoralize and confuse their workforce.
Second, do not think that a study committee can substitute for in-house policy development. The Augustine Committee included some of the best minds in the US space industry, but it must, in the end, be regarded as a failure. Its conclusions seem to have been based on arbitrary budget assumptions. To many in Congress and elsewhere, its report was pre-cooked and was largely designed to undo the progress made by Mike Griffin towards a return to the Moon.
NASA's relationship with the Moon is the key to understanding its institutional bias. This is not simply due to nostalgia for the glory days of Apollo, but is based on an understanding of the strategic "geography" of the solar system. Our planet's satellite, thanks to its position and its small size, makes it an ideal base from which to explore the solar system, and, if necessary, to dominate the Earth. It has been described as a "Gibraltar Point" possession, which entails control over access to and from the surface of the Earth to the rest of our celestial neighborhood. Neither the US nor anyone else has plans, at present, to build military bases on the Moon, but that may change. A US civilian base on the Moon would be a strong deterrent to such a development.
These facts have long been built into the DNA of US space policy. Abandoning the Constellation Moon plan aroused in the Congress, and in parts of the US space industry, a fear that we were giving up that deterrent in favor of a vague, unfocused set of promises that could later be discarded at little or no political cost. The "Compromise" plans that have come out of the House and Senate are by no means satisfactory, but they give NASA a solid foundation on which to develop a future plan to return to the Moon if a future President or Congress wanted to make that commitment.
The compromise contains language which should allow NASA's leaders enough wiggle room to design, develop and build whatever kind of new medium-heavy Space Launch System (SLS) they want. Provided, of course that they do so within the rough timeframe and technology parameters allowed: by 2015-2016. Their medium-term success will depend on their ability to work with industry to take full advantage of technology from the old Constellation program. While congress is giving them some room, they clearly expect the SLS to resemble an Ares III,V.IX, rockets with some limited new technology. If the design choices inflict the same sort of surprise that was inflicted on Congress in February then the reaction will be even more swift and devastating for the agency.
The claim that all Congress is down protecting "pork" is irrelevant. What do they expect Senators and Representatives to do, give up their constitutional prerogatives and rubber stamp whatever comes out of the White
House? It may be time for serious people to give up the work "pork" just as they have given up using the word "fascist" as a all purpose term of abuse -- and "racist," while they are at it.
The Obama administration's efforts to empower the co-called commercial space industry by giving them far more money than was available under the Bush era Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program has been curtailed. Fortunately for the New Space industry, they have discovered that, as commercial entities, they do not have to depend on the US government. The fact that SpaceX has just won a half-billion dollar launch contract from the Iridium satellite communications company is excellent news. Even better is the fact that they did so in the face of major competition from the French and the Russians.
The greatest danger for NASA is that the ill will that has been engendered by this debate will carry over into next year's budget process and may result in the cancellation of virtually all US human spaceflight activity. The budget pressures are going to be more severe than ever. There is already a group of space leaders out there who will, if they do not get what they want, recommend that the whole space exploration budget be eliminated. That would be music to the ears of those whose goal has long been to bring US national achievements down a few notches. Ending the era of major national accomplishments in space would be a fine way to grind away at the idea of American Exceptionalism.