Space Watchers Critique President Obama’s Proposal for NASA’s Future

BY Lea Winerman  April 15, 2010 at 4:27 PM EDT

President Obama traveled to Florida’s “Space Coast” Thursday to sell his plan for a new direction for NASA. The president’s proposal would end the return-to-the-moon Constellation program begun under President Bush, a program many critics say is behind schedule and over budget.

NASA’s space shuttle program is also scheduled to end after just three more flights — a decision announced in 2004.

In place of these programs, the Obama administration would turn over routine trips to the International Space Station to private industry, investing billions of dollars in private aerospace companies to develop that capability. The plan would also pump money into NASA research to develop new rocket ships that could travel to asteroids, and eventually Mars.

But those plans don’t have a specific timetable, and critics say they will not make up for the loss of the shuttle and Constellation programs. Even former astronauts are divided — spacewalkers Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Eugene Cernan penned a letter to the president criticizing the new plan, while Buzz Aldrin has come out in support of it.

Four analysts and stakeholders spoke with us and answered the question:

Do you think President Obama’s proposal moves the U.S. space program in the right direction?

Their answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Jeff Greason, CEO, XCOR Aerospace

I’m cautiously very encouraged. I think that the move to a more flexible approach, where the government does what it’s good at, and private industry does what it’s good at, is the right way to go. It holds out the promise that the taxpayers can get a lot more results for their money. Certainly there’s risk, there’s the chance that it might not go well; but if we don’t try, we’re guaranteed to get what we’ve been getting, which is not very satisfactory.

Ever since the end of the Apollo program really, NASA has not ever fundamentally changed the way it does business. For decades they’ve stumbled along pretending that someone will give them an Apollo-like mission again and everything will be fine. The most recent NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, treated what they’d been given like it was Apollo. And found, not surprisingly, that if you try to do Apollo, with Apollo technologies, it requires Apollo budgets — and they’re not getting that.

So I think that changing to an approach in which there’s a chance we’ll get some exploration done for the money we’re spending is a big improvement.

[Privatizing space travel] is part of it, but only one part. An equally important part is the change in NASA back to a technology-based approach. Rather than saying “we have to go to the moon tomorrow, so we can’t change the technology”, you can invent new things so that we can eventually do more than we can do today. If you’re going to be in a world where the amount of money is fixed, the choices are to give up on doing ambitious things, or to invest in technology so we can do more.

Also, it’s important to note that they’re not privatizing exploration — they’re privatizing routine transportation to and from Earth orbit — specifically so that NASA can go back to exploration, which I don’t think private industry will do for it.


Florida State Sen. Mike Haridopolos, represents “Space Coast” district

We’ve reviewed it at length and it’s clearly a disappointment for all of us. We’ll lose the opportunity for space travel, which is so important for national security, and for our community. Neil Armstrong put it better than I can — we should continue our ability to get into space. It’s a national issue and a national defense issue.

[With the new plan] we’d have to rely on the Russians to get to the station. And you know, I’m a historian, I teach history — and needless to say they have not always been our most reliable allies. I fear once we lose the ability to get ourselves into space, it puts us in vulnerable position.

[On the economic impact] the estimate is that there would be 23,000 jobs lost — 8 to 9,000 just at the Kennedy Space Center. And there’s a multiplier effect — the people who serve those 8 or 9,000 — restaurants and others — lose jobs too. So really 2.1 jobs are lost for every job lost at Kennedy Space Center. And the reason we’re so concerned about this is that it’s not a maybe, we know what happens. We saw it in the 1970s after the Apollo program ended.

We have such a dedicated workforce here. And there’s just desperation — we’re already one of the hardest-hit areas of the country due to the mortgage meltdown. With this, unemployment could be up to 19 percent.


Keith Cowing, editor, NASA Watch

It’s a paradigm-shifting proposal. It has matured a little over the past few months and will continue to mature. But what it does overall is challenge the status quo as to how America explores space. And that involves making some difficult decisions.
It’s changing the policy begun by President Bush with the Constellation program, and it says we want to go further in terms of using private sector than ever before.

Unfortunately the administration had to grapple with the reality that the Constellation program was hopelessly behind schedule, had technical problems, and never had enough money to accomplish what it was supposed to. So rather than just try to push this piece of spaghetti up a rope, they decided to cut their losses. They said “what do we want to do with this space program?” And the answer they arrived at is that many solutions will be found in the private sector.

But you know, it’s a misnomer that we’re suddenly changing things. America’s rockets have been built by private companies for 40 years. What’s new is moving from having the government directing every little aspect of things, as opposed to saying this is what we generally want, and building a competitive industry.


Tom Young, former Lockheed Martin executive vice president and former NASA official

I think it’s a significant mistake. Not because I don’t think the aerospace industry is enormously capable, but I think it’s not capable of doing something as challenging as humans in space by itself. I think the probability of it being unsuccessful is very high.

So if you follow that, you have to have some means to transport astronauts to lower-earth orbit. It seems to me the most appropriate way to do that is the Ares 1 or a derivative of Ares 1 rocket. So I would not cancel that part of the program — I’d just have NASA take a hard look at what’s the best way to do it.

My next concern is that there is no plan for human exploration beyond earth orbit other than the technology program. I think we do need to do some investing in technology, but [...] my belief is you need a detailed exploration plan with dates and destinations, then a technology plan that helps implement that. I come from a world of technology, it’s hard to be against it. But it’s not enough on its own.

Watch Thursday’s NewsHour for more analysis of the proposal.