There is also disagreement on destinations. The Congress prefers to focus on “cislunar” space – the area between the Earth and the surface of the moon, while President Obama last year announced that the moon will not be the first destination for new exploratory missions, suggesting instead a visit to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025. That goal has not caught on, so NASA has developed a strategy for building the capabilities needed to visit a variety of solar system destinations. But that approach is too vague to be publicly understood; it needs to be linked with a clearer sense of what those destinations will be.
There is one path out of the current uncertainty. Both branches do agree on certain development needs: some form of new transportation service to the International Space Station to replace the shuttle, a new spacecraft for journeys beyond Earth orbit, a new heavy-lift launch vehicle to send that spacecraft on its way, and more investment in innovative technologies than has been the case during the shuttle era. Where they differ is the relative priority and schedule deadlines among these objectives; and it is these lingering, and fundamental, differences that are causing the confusion. To move forward, these differences have to be reconciled.
Read all of our roundtable pieces on the leadership challenges facing NASA following the end of the space shuttle program.
Here is where effective leadership is so badly needed, and it can only come from the White House. Barack Obama in public statements has offered his personal support of NASA; as the shuttle lifted off last Friday, he said, “Today’s launch may mark the final flight of the space shuttle, but it propels us into the next era of our never-ending adventure to push the very frontiers of exploration and discovery in space.“ The president and his senior staff need to back up these words with intense engagement with Congress to reduce the differences between the president’s vision for space and congressional preferences, so that the level of uncertainty can be significantly reduced. Without strong White House support, NASA leaders by themselves cannot achieve that goal. With it, there can be grounds for agreement on a sustainable path forward.
Given everything else on the president’s plate and the many other issues dividing the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, suggesting more active high-level White House involvement in space issues may not be very realistic. But it seems the only way out of a deplorable situation. It does no honor to the achievements of the space shuttle program to have its end come with no clear sense of what will follow.