Having faced pointed and even hostile questioning about its new space policy in the Senate and now in the House, the Obama administration and NASA officials are starting to realize that perhaps the rollout of that policy was flawed.
According to the Wall Street Journal:
“The reaction portends an uphill fight for the Obama administration, partly due to sentiment on Capitol Hill that it failed to consult members before unveiling such a dramatic shift in direction
“In an interview Tuesday, NASA’s chief administrator, Charles Bolden, accepted part of the blame. ‘I could have done a better job of communicating’ with Congress, he said. ‘I will take the hit for that.'”
It was becoming of a Marine and a good public servant that Charles Bolden accepted part of the blame for the Congressional and media reaction to the space policy. One does think, though, that the lion’s share of the blame would go to people above Administrator Bolden’s pay grade-and one step below. NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told Miles O’Brien that the deliberations about the new space policy were “transparent.” But clearly, after the Augustine Committee concluded its deliberations and issued its final report, they were not.
Congress is unhappy with the space policy on two counts. First the cancellation of the Constellation program blindsided them. Not only is there the issue, perhaps crass to some, of jobs lost, but also the abandonment of a real program of space exploration, with goals and timetables. Airy talk about how “visionary” the technology development program that replaced it is has so far not impressed Congress. Claims that Constellation was “unsustainable” have also failed to impress; underfund something long enough and anything can be made to be unsustainable. The irony is that Congress itself is complicit in underfunding Constellation.
Many observers believe that while Constellation might have been cancelled, that one of the options presented by the Augustine Report would have be substituted. But every aspect of a beyond Low Earth Orbit exploration program, even the relatively trouble free Orion space craft, was scrapped under the Obama plan. Rob Coppinger, who blogs about space policy, points out that with Orion gone, there are no space ships capable of deep space missions on the drawing board. Furthermore the idea of outfitting a commercial space craft is easier said than done.
The second concern is about the commercial space initiative. While hailed by large parts of the aerospace community, Congress is expressing safety concerns, concerns that are hotly debating among aerospace experts. Some suspect that the real reason is that the end of Constellation is seen as linked to the commercial space initiative. Constellation included a “public option” of an Orion launched by an Ares 1 to resupply the International Space Station. Now the entire effort will depend on when and if commercial operators step up.
With NASA now scrambling to come up with more information, including a solid plan post Constellation for space exploration, it is clear that President Obama’s space policy is going to be heavily rewritten in the Congress. What is added to it, taken away, or survives is right now only open to conjecture. The best case scenario, in which both the commercial space initiative survives and some kind of space exploration program that makes sense is added back in, is hard to imagine at this point. That will require more money, especially in the out years. Absent presidential leadership, $1.5 trillion budget deficits, a liberal Congress, and frankly a leadership at NASA that has proven to be politically inept, that outcome appears to be remote.
But stranger things have happened so far in 2010. With the dream of space exploration, hope springs eternal.
Sources: Bill Nelson Grills Peter Orszag on NASA Budget Proposal, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, February 3rd, 2010
NASA Plan Faces Turbulence in House, Andy Pasztor, Wall Street Journal, February 4th, 2010
This Week in Space, Special Report on Obama Space Policy, Miles O’Brien, February 3rd, 2010
Obama’s capsule conundrum, what you hadn’t noticed?, Rob Coppinger, Hyperbola, February 4th, 2010