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Obama in Florida
Barack Obama, seen here during an August 2008 visit to Florida’s Space Coast, will return on April 15 to outline, and perhaps alter, his new plan for NASA. (credit: barackobama.com)

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The controversy surrounding President Obama’s plan for NASA is becoming toxic. Calls to resurrect Constellation and to extend the Space Shuttle are drowning out support for a plan that has substantial merit and is consistent with over a decade’s worth of thoughtful study. The most vocal proponents of saving Constellation and extending the Shuttle are mostly from states and communities with much to lose from their demise. These proponents tend to ignore the facts that Constellation would never reach its goals on time or within budget, and extending the Space Shuttle is entirely inconsistent with Constellation’s goals and budget.

Calls to resurrect Constellation and to extend the Space Shuttle are drowning out support for a plan that has substantial merit and is consistent with over a decade’s worth of thoughtful study.

That’s not to say there isn’t a pony in there somewhere. There’s much speculation about what President Obama will reveal during his April 15 visit to Florida, and plenty of people willing to offer advice on what he should say. After working closely with many of Florida’s players on these issues, I’d like to give my interpretation of what folks here hope President Obama should announce during his trip to the Space Coast.

1) Destination & Timeline: The President seems to have adopted the “Flexible Path” approach put forward by the Augustine Committee, with a few exceptions. What’s missing is a firm set of destinations and a timeline for exploring beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and a vehicle to take us there. Establishing these destinations, and a rough timeline for reaching them, will be necessary to drive NASA’s planning and investment strategy. The President should announce a set of NASA destinations and a timeline for reaching them.

2) Heavy Lift: Very few people would disagree that a heavy-lift successor to the Space Shuttle is necessary to sustain a beyond-LEO human exploration program. A near-term heavy-lift development program would help to ensure that KSC’s strategically important infrastructure and workforce are put to productive use. A Shuttle-derived heavy-lift system would make the best near-term use of these resources, and could be scalable over time to match the capability envisioned for the Ares 5. The President should announce plans to accelerate the development of a Shuttle-derived heavy-lift launch system.

3) Shuttle Extension: It’s already highly likely that the Space Shuttle’s remaining missions will flow over into 2011. By spreading out the remaining missions to two per year, and perhaps adding one additional mission with existing hardware, the program could extend out to a point where the “gap” is effectively closed. This would also ensure a higher level of utilization and servicing for the International Space Station during those additional years. And it could facilitate the transition to a Shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle. The President should announce plans to reduce the gap by slowing the Shuttle launch rate to two per year, plus the addition of one mission.

4) Orion: The NASA-designed Orion crew capsule is farther along than any other human-carrying vehicle currently under development. Along with other elements of Constellation (like upper-stage engine development), this is one project that should continue. The fact that Florida has invested over $30 million in its development is no small matter, but more important is the fact that this capsule is being developed to support both LEO and beyond-LEO missions, making it a vital part of the Flexible Path exploration plan. The President should announce the resumption of Orion’s development at KSC.

5) International Space Station: As with Orion, Florida has invested tens of millions of dollars to develop a facility at KSC to support this program. The Space Life Sciences Lab was envisioned as the starting and ending point for ISS experiments. With portions of the ISS now designated as a US National Laboratory, Florida has had high hopes that the state would become a leading center for ISS science operations and national lab management. The President should announce his expectation of an expanded role for KSC in managing the ISS National Lab.

By spreading out the remaining shuttle missions to two per year, and perhaps adding one additional mission with existing hardware, the program could extend out to a point where the “gap” is effectively closed.

6) Commercial Crew and Cargo: NASA is correct in asserting that commercial launchers can and should be entrusted with responsibility for transporting cargo and crew to LEO. The government blazed the trail to LEO and the private sector should now populate it while NASA focuses on the next frontier. The valid concerns about availability, cost, and safety for government customers are being addressed by NASA’s efforts to assist and support multiple suppliers. (It won’t hurt to also have a government-run heavy-lift vehicle that can also carry humans.) The President should reaffirm his support for commercial launches to support NASA missions, and identify KSC as the center responsible for procuring such launches.

7) Commercial Competitiveness: The US commercial satellite launch industry has lost virtually all of its market share to competitors in Russia and Europe (while China, India, and other nations are also entering the market). There are many reasons for this, including problems with policies and regulations, infrastructure, and technology. NASA’s plan to invest in improvements at the Cape is a very positive step, but other steps are needed to enable the commercial launch industry (including emerging markets for suborbital and orbital human spaceflight) to succeed. As the agency that hosts most of our commercial launch operations, the Air Force has been conducting a thorough review of legal and regulatory changes that would support the industry. The President should announce a comprehensive review of needed regulatory and policy changes, including recommended legislation to update them to promote commercial space transportation.

8) Technology Development and Diversification: Florida’s economy has been whiplashed by repeated changes in NASA’s launch programs, dating back to the Apollo Program’s cancellation in the 1970s. The state is keenly interested in diversifying its role beyond being simply a launch site, and has been working to leverage KSC’s limited role in various non-launch programs to establish a more robust space R&D capability in the state. NASA’s well-conceived plan for a sustained agency-wide technology development program can do much to diversify KSC’s mission in ways that are entirely appropriate for the agency and the center. The President should announce a leadership role for KSC in some new technology development initiatives, in areas such as on-orbit refueling, lunar and planetary surface operations, and other areas.

These ideas are not new. In many ways, they make use of the better elements of Constellation to reduce future risks. They also make appropriate use of Florida’s critically skilled space industry workforce and the Cape’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure. More importantly, they recognize and expand NASA’s role as an international leader in space exploration and aerospace R&D, without treating the agency as a high-tech jobs program.

The problem, obviously, is cost. I doubt President Obama can announce all of these things without pledging some additional funds for NASA. Let’s hope he comes to Florida with a bag of cash too.


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