In the process of trying to set a new course for NASA, neither the White House nor the Senate has covered itself with glory.
The Obama Administration's February 2010 proposal for NASA's future direction is mostly dead: if the administration's goal was to kill the Bush-era plan to return American to the Moon, it has been a success. If the President and his advisors' goal, however, was to chart a bold new direction for the US Space Agency, the proposal has been an abject failure.
The Earth's Moon has long been recognized as the critical control point, or "Gibralter Point," of the Solar System: for more than 200 years, the British controlled access to the Mediterranean from their base at Gibraltar; similarly, even an unarmed a base on the Moon would give a similar advantage to whichever nation owned it.
Although the Constellation plan was justified by the Bush administration on both scientific and economic grounds, more important were other, unspoken, strategic grounds: to put it plainly,: from the Moon one can control access to the other planets. Further, the Moon has been shown to contain critical resources, especially water.
The US House of Representatives humiliated itself when, on September 29th, it rejected its own Science Committee's NASA Authorization Bill in favor of one that had already passed the Senate. As Gabrielle Giffords (D Arizona), Chairwoman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, said; "This is a bad ball, it will do damage to NASA and must be struck down." Sadly, it was passed and the President has signed it.
The Senate version gave the administration a little more of what it wanted than did the House version, which tried to preserve much of the work that had been done on NASA's Constellation Return-To-The Moon project that the Bush administration had accomplished in the years following the February 2003 Colombia Shuttle disaster. The Constellation plan proposed going back to the Moon by 2020, or 2025, and building a permanent base there.
By killing the Moon program -- and its associated rockets, capsules and other systems -- in favor of a vague and ill-defined plan that may or may not include a trip to an asteroid sometime around 2025, the administration has put NASA in an impossible situation. Nothing is easier to cut than an aimless and expensive technology development program. It will be difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to justify to the new Congress spending tens of millions on a project such as the orbiting fuel depot, which may someday provide propellent for undefined and unfunded missions into the Solar System. This year the House and Senate have put together an authorization bill that promises more than $250 million for this type of unfocused program.
The authorization that passed the House on September 26th instructs NASA to begin work on a new Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle using existing technology. This new Rocket could substitute for the private space-taxis if they fail to emerge on time. However the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle will certainly take many years to develop and will probably end up costing more than the rockets that were already under development for the Constellation plan.
Not only did the Obama administration kill off the plan to go back to the Moon, but the administration may end up eliminating America's ability to send astronauts to the International Space Station, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary in orbit.
The Space Station is a critical place where we can do long term research in weightlessness; it has also been more than 80% paid for by the US; for NASA to abandon it after spending more than $100 billion on the project would insure the end of the space program, while other countries are working full time to supplant the US there.
Instead of sending our people, gear and supplies there using the Shuttle, whose final flight is scheduled for next year, the adminustration proposes to send them up on privately developed space launch vehicles. This program called "Commercial Crew and Cargo Development" evolved from the smaller "Commercial Orbital Transportation Services" program begun by the Bush administration. The Obama administration hopes that sometime around 2015 one of these private firms will be able to provide this "Space Taxi" service. Until then, the Russians will have a monopoly on the business of carrying people to and from the Space Station. The biggest question for NASA is: Why should we be dependent on Russia to send our people to a Space Station that was largely built and paid for by America?
Theoretically there is nothing wrong with buying seats for American government space travelers, formerly known as astronauts, on a private vehicle. However without a firm plan to develop an alternative to the new private spacecraft, the US could be dependent on Russia for a very long time.
Now that the Space Station has been built and paid for, NASA and its international and domestic partners have begun a wide variety of research projects on everything from the mysteries of Dark Matter to, for example, the bone loss caused by osteoporosis, which affects men and women in weightlessness, if one can find a solution to this problem in space, finding a cure for people on Earth would logically follow.
The station is also an excellent place for the development of new materials for use in space and on Earth, just as lightweight insulating cloth used commercially for ski-wear, and the Global Positioning System were. Some of these programs would have a direct impact on the health and well being of everyone down here on Earth. Other space station projects and experiments would help build the knowledge and expertise needed to work and travel beyond this planet -- if we should chose to go.
Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Florida seems confident that the appropriations committees of the House and Senate will follow the guidelines laid out in the authorization bill that was passed. Traditionally though, the appropriators have always wanted to put their own mark on NASA spending bills, so nothing will be certain until the final appropriations bill is passed and signed.
Even trickier is the fact that the election results indicate that the majority of the voters want to cut federal spending, NASA has always been an easy place to find savings. Canceling the Constellation Moon Program has knocked the supports out from under the old political alliance that kept the space agency's budget funded at roughly 7-8% of total federal spending. This alliance, in 2005 and 2008, was able to assemble impressive majorities in favor of the Moon Program. In 2005, when the GOP controlled the House, the vote was 385 to 15; in 2008, when the Democrats held the most seats, the vote was 409 to 15. This year, the vote in favor for the compromise authorization bill was 304 to 118 -- not exactly a powerful endorsement.
NASA's leaders have failed to convince Congress that they have a clear and well-thought-out plan for human space exploration.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden often talks about the need for more international cooperation. He stresses that American cannot "go it alone.".This sometimes sounds as if he and his team want to give up America's unique role as the world's leading space exploration power. If the US is to become merely the biggest bill-payer in a new transnational space program, NASA will have have lost much of its reason to exist.
When President Obama proposed to cancel the Constellation Moon program last February, Senator Richard Shelby (R Alabama) claimed that this would be the beginning of a "Death March" for America's manned space program. Unfortunately he may have been right.