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Obama's plans for NASA changes met with harsh criticism

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Harrison Schmitt's credentials as a space policy analyst include several days of walking on the moon. The Apollo 17 astronaut, who is also a former U.S. senator, is aghast at what President Obama is doing to the space program.

"It's bad for the country," Schmitt said. "This administration really does not believe in American exceptionalism."

Schmitt's harsh words are part of a furious blowback to the administration's new strategy for NASA. The administration has decided to kill NASA's Constellation program, crafted during the Bush administration with an ambitious goal of putting astronauts back on the moon by 2020. Obama's 2011 budget request would nix Constellation's rocket and crew capsule, funnel billions of dollars to new spaceflight technologies, and outsource to commercial firms the task of ferrying astronauts to low-Earth orbit.

The new strategy, however, has been met with outrage from many in the aerospace community. The entire congressional delegation from Florida, Democrats and Republicans alike, has sent a letter of protest to the president. Doubters fill op-ed pages and space blogs.

The administration apparently senses that it is losing the public-relations battle. On Sunday, the White House announced that the president, who has said almost nothing in public about his NASA strategy, will headline a conference on NASA policy April 15 in Central Florida. Obama will be heading into what has become hostile territory.

"They made a mistake when they rolled out their space program, because they gave the perception that they had killed the manned space program," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who disagrees with that perception but wants the Obama plan modified. Nelson said the president should declare during the Florida conference that NASA's goal is to send humans to Mars. Nelson noted that the Interstate 4 corridor through Central Florida is critical for national candidates. "I think it has a lot of repercussions for the president. If a national candidate does not carry the I-4 corridor, they don't win Florida," Nelson said.

Congress must approve NASA's strategic change. Lawmakers in Florida, Alabama and Texas, states rich in space jobs, have sharply criticized the Obama plan as a job-killer. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) says that under Obama's strategy "America's decades-long dominance of space will finally come to an end."

In fact, Obama's budget boosts NASA's funding by $6 billion over the next five years. The extra money is less than the $3 billion-a-year hike that a presidential advisory panel said would be necessary for a robust human space flight, but it's still an increase when many agencies are being squeezed.

Change doesn't come easily in the aerospace industry, with its long timelines and abundance of customized technology. Thousands of aerospace contract workers were already going to lose their jobs with the retirement of the aging fleet of space shuttles. Constellation, conceived after the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, was designed with architecture that would let some shuttle jobs migrate to the new program. NASA has already poured $9 billion into the development of a new rocket, Ares 1, and a new spacecraft, Orion. Terminating the program and closing out contracts will cost $2.5 billion more, the administration estimates.

After the last shuttle flies -- the final mission is scheduled for September -- the United States will rely entirely on Russian spacecraft to carry astronauts to the international space station. It is likely to take several years, at least, for the commercial firms to produce a safe spacecraft for putting people in orbit.

Nelson wants to continue the testing of solid rocket boosters as part of a fallback plan if the commercial firms can't deliver. Such a move would, in effect, continue Constellation in part, even if under a different name. But, barring an unlikely increase in the NASA budget, any such move would require cuts in other NASA programs. NASA's science directorate, for example, might see trims to the $512 million increase it would receive under Obama's 2011 budget.

"Should science people be nervous if they continue Constellation? Absolutely," a senior NASA official said Tuesday.

The strategic change has been dictated by budgetary realities, the administration has said. An advisory committee appointed by Obama, and headed by former Lockheed chief executive Norman Augustine, determined that under a realistic budget NASA probably wouldn't have a moon rocket until 2028, and still wouldn't have the hardware to land. Ares 1 had little chance of ever having a "useful role," Augustine said in a recent interview.

"The problem with Constellation was that success was not one of the possible outcomes," said Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, a start-up rocket firm that would be in the running for one of the new NASA commercial contracts.

Musk plans to conduct the first test launch of his Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the coming weeks. He puts the odds of success on the first try at 70 to 80 percent.

"It's trivial to build a rocket. It's incredibly difficult to build a rocket that goes to orbit," Musk said.

The timetable could put the launch very close to Obama's April 15 space conference. That makes Musk nervous.

"It is looking oddly close to the middle of next month. Which is a little scary," Musk said. "I'd hate for any decision here to be informed by some unfortunate situation on our first launch."


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