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Obama at KSC
President Barack Obama discusses his space exploration policy to an audience at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15. (credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

Hitting the reset button

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It was, in retrospect, the way the new policy should have been rolled out in the first place. In an address in a famous locale—the Kennedy Space Center, named after the president who set an audacious goal for the new space agency nearly a half-century ago—President Barack Obama laid out his vision for the future of human space exploration at NASA. That vision called ultimately for human missions to a near Earth asteroid by the mid-2020s and to orbit around Mars a decade later, to be followed by landings—the first time a president set a specific timetable for human missions to the Red Planet since George H.W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989, setting a 2019 deadline for a Mars landing.

“And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space,” specifically a near-Earth asteroid, Obama said. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.”

The problem for the president, and for NASA, is that his speech came two and a half months after the administration announced the agency’s new plans in a low-key manner: the release of the fiscal year 2011 budget proposal on February 1. Both the plan itself and the way it was rolled out (see “NASA’s need to win hearts and minds”, The Space Review, March 8, 2010) generated consternation and outright opposition in much of the space community. Many were shocked by the cancellation of Constellation, while others were concerned about the new plan’s reliance on commercial providers who have yet to demonstrate the ability to safely launch humans. Could the president’s speech provide an opportunity for a “do-over” and relaunch a plan that had gotten off to a shaky start?

NASA’s new plan, version 1.1

Many anticipated that the president would use the speech to make some changes to the plan as it was announced in February—a version 1.1, of the plan, if you will. Some anticipated an extension of the shuttle program, by a single flight or perhaps more over several years to address the gap in human space access as well as the jobs that will be lost once the shuttle is retired. Others expected some announcement about the development and testing of a heavy-lift booster, something that could also partially mitigate the impact of the shuttle’s retirement.

As it turned out, even before the president spoke the administration announced changes in the plan. Late Tuesday the White House issued a fact sheet about the plan. The biggest change: the Orion crew exploration vehicle, originally slated for cancellation with the rest of Constellation, would be revived as a crew return vehicle for the International Space Station. This “scaled-down variant” of Orion, as described by the fact sheet, would launch unmanned and remain docked to the station, providing an alternative to the crew return capability provided by Soyuz spacecraft.

The other major change in the plan is the establishment of a 2015 deadline for the design of a heavy-lift launcher. While the original plan included more than $3 billion over five years for launch vehicle R&D, including the development of a new large hydrocarbon engine, the plan didn’t specify when a heavy-lift vehicle might actually be built. “A decision in 2015 means that major work on building a new heavy lift rocket will likely begin two years sooner than under the troubled Constellation program,” the fact sheet stated.

The White House saved other changes and additions to the plan for the president’s speech at KSC. Included in that was the development of a $40-million workforce initiative for those in Florida who will lose their jobs when the shuttle is retired—a decision, he noted, was made “six years ago, not six months ago”, referring to President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Obama said he expected a plan, to be crafted by the White House, NASA, and other agencies, on his desk by August 15. “It’s an effort that will help prepare this already skilled workforce for new opportunities in the space industry and beyond,” he said.

The speech also addressed another perceived failing of the original plan: a lack of defined destinations and deadlines for human exploration beyond Earth orbit. While NASA administrator Charles Bolden subsequently spoke of Mars being the “ultimate goal” for human spaceflight, many either couldn’t see how the new plan got people to Mars in the foreseeable future, or were concerned that a lack of well-defined destinations would make the program directionless and subject to cuts down the road.

Obama about the Moon: “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz [Aldrin] has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

“Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” Obama said. “And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space,” specifically a near-Earth asteroid. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

Notably missing in his list of destinations, though, was the Moon. “Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned,” he said. “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz [Aldrin] has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

That statement was one of several in the speech where Obama took time to defend various aspects of the original plan, such as its reliance on commercial providers for human spaceflight. “Now, I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. I disagree,” he said. “By buying the services of space transportation—rather than the vehicles themselves—we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies—from young startups to established leaders—compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.”

The new plan, he said, meant revising the old plan, including scrapping Constellation because it was “not fulfilling its promise in many ways”, a move that’s generated considerable criticism, including a letter earlier in the week from three famous former astronauts: Neil Armstrong, James Lovell, and Eugene Cernan. “Some have had harsh words for the decisions we’ve made, including some individuals who I’ve got enormous respect and admiration for.”

Obama even felt compelled to defend his own interest and support for NASA and spaceflight. “So let me start by being extremely clear: I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future,” he said. Later in the speech: “The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am.”

Mixed reaction

Few would have expected that a single speech would instantly eliminate the opposition to the plan in the halls of Congress or elsewhere. Some, though, hoped that it would at least give opponents of the original plan a reason to rethink their stance. “He will cause the country and, more importantly, the political establishment, to take a deep breath,” predicted Robert Walker, former chairman of the House Science Committee, in comments immediately after a telecast of the speech at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Those opposed to the original plan, though, seemed to use that deep breath to wind up another round of criticism of the plan. Those hoping for a shuttle extension, like Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), were left empty-handed. “He has not budged on his plan to retire the shuttle eight months from now and that is deeply disappointing to me but I will continue to press for shuttle extension,” he said in a statement.

“So let me start by being extremely clear: I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future,” Obama said.

Supporters of the Ares rockets, which unlike Orion were not spared in the revised plan, also were disappointed. “Eliminating the Constellation program, and especially the Ares 1 rocket, will decimate an industrial base that is not only key to maintaining our supremacy in space exploration, but also crucial to maintaining and strengthening our national security efforts,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT).

Others had more general concerns. “The President’s announcement today, unfortunately, still will do nothing to ensure America’s superiority in human space exploration or to decrease our reliance on Russia in the interim,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee. “America needs to have a bold presence in space and a proven plan for access to low Earth orbit and beyond. This is essential to our national security, and global predominance.”

“As a result of the alternative offered by the President today, there is now no hope for a bright future in human space exploration,” claimed Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), his rhetoric about the plan as strong as it was when the plan was unveiled in February. “The President’s new plan continues the destruction of forty years of US space supremacy by pinning our hopes for success on unproven commercial companies.”

Others, though, were cautiously optimistic about the plan. Both Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL), guests of the president at the KSC speech, endorsed the plan in subsequent statements, although leaving open the possibility for changes. “The changes that the President has outlined today to his NASA proposal are steps in the right direction and a sign that he is listening to my concerns, but there is still room for improvement,” Kosmas said.

The plan also got support across the aisle from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has previously endorsed the move to commercial space transportation providers in the plan. “With a relatively affordable budget, NASA can focus on technology development; create a new industry with thousands of private sector jobs; and prepare for the long-term human exploration and settlement of space,” he said. “Getting the private sector more involved in space efforts will free up NASA to explore the solar system and the universe beyond.”

The plan also got a warmer reaction off Capitol Hill, with a number of industry groups and other space organizations, ranging from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) to The Planetary Society, embracing the president’s speech. “The President’s message today was spot-on: the new plan means more jobs, more spacecraft, more new technologies, and more astronaut flights,” said CSF president Brett Alexander. “The new vision for NASA is obviously and clearly a huge step forward for the agency and Americans who care about opening space in a real, sustainable and affordable manner,” said Bob Werb, chairman of the Space Frontier Foundation, an organization that has in the past been sharply critical of the space agency.

The Coalition for Space Exploration, an industry group, was more conditional in its support, in particular its reliance on commercial human spaceflight. “There remain questions as to whether the proposal to rely solely on commercial providers to send American astronauts to the ISS is premature and threatens to extend indefinitely our reliance on other nations,” it stated. “In the final analysis, the US human spaceflight program is a national imperative, not only a commercial interest.”

Unanswered questions

The revised plan, while attempting to address concerns about the original plan, raised some new questions of its own that NASA and the White House have yet to answer. Among them is the future of Orion, which will now live on in a scaled-down version as a crew return vehicle. What exactly will that vehicle look like? How long will it take to develop? How much will it cost, and where will the money come from to pay for it?

“As a result of the alternative offered by the President today, there is now no hope for a bright future in human space exploration,” claimed Sen. Shelby.

Keeping Orion alive, though, does have the short-term significance of winning support in Colorado, which has become a swing state in presidential elections. Earlier last week, Colorado’s two senators and its governor—all Democrats—asked the president to keep Orion alive and preserve the Colorado jobs associated with it. “I was pleased to hear that the President will not terminate the Orion space capsule project as initially proposed,” Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) said after the president’s speech. “This move will save jobs in Colorado and ensure that Orion will continue to be a part of America's mission in space.”

The announcement of a 2015 decision for a heavy-lift vehicle also troubled some people who would like to see NASA begin work on it sooner. “If exploration is truly our goal, we can and should develop heavy lift capability right now,” said Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), whose district includes the Johnson Space Center. A Boeing statement also called for faster development of such a vehicle: “We support the president’s call for increased investment in heavy-lift launch vehicle technology, but we believe the United States should be on a clear path to accelerate the development and production of this critical system, along with a deep-space capsule.”

Missing from the debate is a bigger question: how heavy is heavy-lift? That is, how much mass should such a vehicle be able to place in orbit: 100 tons? More? Less? (A secondary, but still important question is how wide the vehicle’s diameter should be, setting a limit on the physical size of payloads it can launch.) That will depend on exploration architectures yet to be formulated, as well as the abilities of new techniques and technologies, such as propellant depots and in-space propellant transfer, to reduce the amount of mass that needs to be carried at a single time. Waiting five years to make a decision might give enough time to better determine how big such a vehicle needs to be.

Another question is whether the initiative announced in the president’s speech designed to help displaced shuttle workers at KSC might be extended to other centers. While KSC and the surrounding Space Coast region may bear the brunt of job losses and economic dislocation in the aftermath of the shuttle’s retirement and the cancellation of most of Constellation, others risk losing jobs in places like Alabama, Texas, and Utah.

Texans in particular feel left out of the new plan, including the state’s governor, Rick Perry. “This is basically telling the people of Houston, Texas, and the Johnson Space Center: ‘We don't need you. We don’t care and you’re discardable. You’re disposable,’” he said Saturday in Fort Worth. In Thursday’s speech at KSC, Perry continued, there was “not one word spoken about the Johnson Space Center. The message there was: ‘You’re from Texas. We don’t care about you.’ I tell people this president has put a target on Texas’ back.”

The path ahead

Perry’s comments are one clear sign that President Obama’s speech failed to raise the level of the debate about the plan. Another example is Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, who in an interview with The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, claimed that Obama “never grew up as an American; he grew up in Indonesia for the most part. His whole formative years were outside of America. I also think he has a very strong feeling, and he makes it quite evident, that he does not like what America has done in the past.” (The paper notes that Obama spent only four years in Indonesia, and in his speech Thursday Obama again recounted the tale of “sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders, waving a flag as astronauts arrived in Hawaii”—not exactly the language of someone who didn’t like America’s past accomplishments.)

“It wasn’t just the greatest achievement in NASA’s history—it was one of the greatest achievements in human history,” Obama said of Apollo. “And the question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something or the end of something. I choose to believe it was only the beginning.”

And that is the risk of the president more closely affiliating himself with NASA’s new direction. In about 20 minutes Thursday he was able to lay out his case for the plan far more effectively than anyone else had to date, after NASA officials had struggled to describe the rationale for the change in direction in the preceding two and a half months. But there is also the risk of new or reinvigorated opposition to the plan from those who oppose the president on other grounds.

Attention will now return to Congress, who will in the coming weeks begin to turn the speeches and rhetoric into appropriations and authorization bill language. A quick resolution is unlikely: Walker said last week that he expects that NASA will begin the new fiscal year under a continuing resolution, which will fund the agency a 2010 levels, for some time. “The real fly in the ointment is whether we can even get an appropriations bill done this year,” he said.

Walker said that authorizing committees, like the House Science and Technology Committee and its space subcommittee, are normally the ideal places to go to build support for the plan in Congress. However, he noted, “that particular subcommittee is populated by members with centers in their districts, so their views are, ‘what does this mean for my center?’”

A better place to look for support, he said, is the Senate Appropriations Committee, in large part because of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes NASA. “I’m just guessing,” Walker said, “but you may find some initial friendly voices” on that committee. (However, the ranking member of that subcommittee, Sen. Shelby, it unlikely to be one of those friendly voices given his opposition to the original and revised plans.)

Mikulski has said little about her views of the new plan. Most recently, she briefly mentioned in a CNN interview last month concerns about astronaut safety and a lack of destinations—concerns that, at least in the latter case, have been addressed by the president. An opportunity for her to speak out on the plan will come this Thursday, when her subcommittee holds a hearing about the NASA budget proposal.

At the end of his speech, President Obama spoke about Apollo and its accomplishments 40 years ago. “It wasn’t just the greatest achievement in NASA’s history—it was one of the greatest achievements in human history,” he said. “And the question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something or the end of something. I choose to believe it was only the beginning.”

It is, at the very least, the beginning of a new round of debate about the future of NASA.