Obama should rethink NASA's space program

Friday, April 23, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA had the right idea when he recommended scrapping the Bush administration's ill-conceived, under-funded program to return to the moon by 2020 and reach Mars by 2037. As a presidential commission headed by former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norman Augustine concluded last year, the human spaceflight program appears "on an unsustainable trajectory," with resources falling woefully short of an unclear goal. So we agree with the president's instinct to hit the reset button. But his plan also is fundamentally flawed, although for the opposite reason than the one most of Mr. Obama's critics have cited.

Those critics, including some former astronauts, accuse Mr. Obama of effectively abandoning human spaceflight by replacing an existing program with a new one. We blame him for not making a cleaner break from unsustainable schemes to put people into space. "The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am," Mr. Obama said at the Kennedy Space Center last Thursday. His proposed route is to skip the moon and instead head to Mars, with interim stops at intriguing destinations such as near-Earth asteroids or the moons of Mars. That's too bad.

While we understand the romantic attraction of human spaceflight, the drive for exploration can be satisfied by less costly and less hazardous means. Human spaceflight is not an affordable priority given the pressing demands on Earth and the scarce resources available to meet them. Equally worrying, the Obama plan risks repeating the mistakes of the past: budgeting too little. As the Augustine commission urged, "These challenging initiatives must be adequately funded, including reserves to account for the unforeseen and unforeseeable. . . . Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations." Under Mr. Bush's Constellation program, NASA was spending 39 percent of its budget on human spaceflight; Mr. Obama proposes devoting just 18 percent. It's hard to see how that will be enough if the mission remains largely the same, even with the prospect of cost savings from new technologies and increased reliance on the private sector.

Mr. Obama would give NASA $6 billion more -- for all purposes, not just for spaceflight -- over five years. Mr. Obama said last week that he was committing $3 billion to begin developing the heavy-lift rocket necessary to get crew and supplies into deep space. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that won't be enough. The smaller rocket that Mr. Obama announced he was canceling, the Ares I launch vehicle, has already cost $9 billion. In the face of congressional unhappiness, Mr. Obama also announced that he would revive a scaled-back version of another part of the Bush program, the Orion space capsule, at a cost of $1 billion to $3 billion. This is certain to further strain other NASA priorities.

It would be better to rethink the space program entirely. The era of the space shuttle is limping to a close, with just three more flights planned. The international space station is slated to shut in 2015, after 25 years of planning and assembly and just five scheduled years of full operations. The Augustine commission recommended, and Mr. Obama has agreed, that the station's operations should be extended until 2020. We're skeptical: to what end, at a cost of $2 billion annually? With the decommissioning of the shuttle, the United States will not have the capacity to transport crew or cargo to the station; it will rely on, and pay, Russia to do so. In addition, with the cancellation of Ares I, the administration wants to rely on private companies to develop vehicles to get passengers to low-Earth orbit. These "space taxis" would stretch current capabilities, but the private sector could play an important, and potentially cost-effective, role. It is odd for those who accuse this administration of wanting to take over the private sector to blast this initiative.

NASA's budget, currently $19 billion, represents a minuscule part of federal spending. But the agency performs important missions that too often have been shortchanged to finance spaceflight. Mr. Obama has wisely rededicated resources to studying the effects of climate change and other phenomena on Earth. NASA's robotics program has produced reams of important scientific information, not to mention inspiring images. The agency's aeronautics program is studying ways to increase fuel efficiency and lower pollution, and to develop the next generation of air traffic control systems. Meanwhile, the world's oceans remain woefully underexplored. In an era when government will not be able to do everything, reaffirming a mission to Mars remains a long, and costly, shot.

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