Obama overhauls NASA's agenda in budget request

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; A23

Nearly half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon. Earlier this month, by killing NASA's Constellation program, President Obama essentially challenged the space agency to do something other than put a man back on the moon.

What that will entail remains unclear. The president hasn't actually spoken a word in public about his new strategy for NASA. Instead, the dramatic change in direction for the space agency was folded into Obama's 2011 budget request.

Change doesn't come easily at any major federal agency, and certainly not at NASA, where major strategic shifts take place only about once a generation. The decision to kill Constellation is akin to President Richard M. Nixon's decision to end the Apollo program in the early 1970s and build the space shuttle.

Some space visionaries are thrilled by the new strategy, which focuses on technology development and on creating a vibrant commercial sector in which astronauts buy tickets to space in much the same way people can buy a seat on an airplane. That enthusiasm has its match in the fury and confusion of some in the aerospace industry. They fear that NASA's direction has become nebulous at best.

Thousands of NASA employees are now uncertain about what they'll be doing. The uncertainty is even greater in the private sector, where thousands of NASA contractors are facing the end of a program that has been the foundation of the agency's human spaceflight strategy for the past five years.

Constellation this year will employ 11,500 people across the country, including about 8,600 in the private sector, according to NASA. Shutting down Constellation and terminating contracts will cost $2.5 billion under the Obama budget projections.

Brian Cullin, a spokesman for ATK, the prime contractor on the first stage of the Ares 1 rocket under development as part of Constellation, said it makes no sense to discard years of work in favor of unproven commercial rockets. "There is a sense at ATK about, 'Why would you throw away this program right now with $9 billion invested, for something that is not defined?' " Cullin said.

Congress still has to sign off on ending Constellation. In the meantime, Cullin said, ATK will continue work on the Ares 1.

"We should be supporting more jobs in the end with this budget," said Beth Robinson, chief financial officer for NASA, "The question is, will those jobs look exactly the same way?"

That major changes were afoot at NASA has been known since Obama's election, but the new budget went beyond what most people expected. It would spike the entire Constellation program, which, in addition to Ares 1, features a new crew capsule, Orion, and a future moon rocket, Ares 5. Crafted under President George W. Bush, Constellation was envisioned as a program that would cost more than $100 billion and put astronauts back on the moon by 2020. It was part of a broader strategy for expanding the human presence beyond low Earth orbit and eventually, perhaps, to Mars.

Obama's strategy also emphasizes the long-term goal of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, but the moon is just one of several possible destinations. Rather than determining up front where astronauts will go, NASA would pour billions of dollars into new technologies and help create a commercial industry in human spaceflight. Thus the agency would become a bit more like the National Science Foundation, an engine for research and innovation.

"I think it is the largest strategic change at least since Kennedy sent us to the moon, and rivals even that in terms of its impact," said space analyst John Logsdon.

He said that, far from killing human spaceflight, the Obama budget gives NASA more than a billion dollars a year in extra funding and makes an investment in the long-term strategy of exploration. That would include robotic missions to the moon.

"We have not abandoned the moon," Logsdon said.

Peter Diamandis, chief executive of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, which aims to foster innovation through competition, said there are more than a thousand billionaires, many of whom are eager to invest in private space enterprises.

"It's going to cause the existing aerospace industry to change how it contracts with the government, which is a shift in risk from the taxpayers to private industry," Diamandis said.

The problem, say critics, is that you can't turn a space agency around on a dime. Spaceships aren't interchangeable. The architecture is customized. The contracts run into the billions of dollars.

The major NASA contractors can still bid on the commercial contracts to taxi astronauts to orbit. They can also compete for work on a new heavy-lift rocket that NASA would like to build. But it's not an industry that likes uncertainty.

"Human spaceflight is a crown jewel and it resides in the heads of teams of experienced people. If you break up that team, it is hard to re-create it later if you need it," said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and a former Bush administration political appointee at NASA.

One of the Senate's most vocal advocates for human spaceflight, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), said on the Senate floor Tuesday that there's a widespread perception in the aerospace industry that Obama has "killed the manned space program." Nelson wants to explore the idea of continuing to test spacecraft like the Ares 1 as a backup for human spaceflight in case the commercial option doesn't work.

In an interview Wednesday, Nelson said the president needs to pitch his space policy directly to the American people.

"It's only the president who can summon the vision to tap the deep reservoir of the American character, which is: We are by nature explorers, and we've always had a frontier," Nelson said.

Where to go is obvious, he added.

"Let's go to Mars," he said. "Then, once you have the goal set, you figure out how to get there."

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