Commentary | Mitt Romney: Lost in Space

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We are fortunate to be entering a new and exciting chapter of American space exploration, one that will see more discoveries, more scientific breakthroughs, more Americans in space and ultimately more American astronauts pioneering farther into the solar system than humans have ever gone before. This upward trajectory is being fueled by an ambitious plan laid out by President Barack Obama that enables NASA to blaze a new trail of innovation and discovery. The president is focused on ensuring not only that we maintain our leadership in space, but also that we advance it by cranking up the American innovation engine once again with a bigger vision, and bolder action, for a brighter space future. These efforts are essential for both our economic and national security.

Extraordinary progress is being made despite the fact that the president inherited a space program in disarray. In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office had identified poor planning around the looming space shuttle retirement and its follow-on program as one of 13 “urgent issues” that any new president would have to confront when they came into office in 2009. Because of years of mismatch between vision and resources, the independent Augustine commission found that the Constellation program was not viable under any feasible budget scenario. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle agreed. Rather than walking away, President Obama knew we had to do better and laid out an ambitious new agenda of human and scientific missions that promise to take NASA and America’s space program to historic new heights.

The president’s plan, passed with bipartisan support in Congress, builds on America’s unrivaled space leadership to take us farther, faster and deeper into space than humans have ever gone before. It is spurring the creation of new technologies, industries and jobs. The key features of this plan include:

  • Extending the life of the international space station (ISS) to at least 2020 to maximize the benefits from this remarkable orbiting laboratory.
  • Substantially increasing our investment in transformative technologies that can expand the reach and reduce the costs of human exploration into deep space while spurring private sector spinoffs on Earth to improve lives and create jobs.
  • Pursuing a series of increasingly demanding human exploration missions, including a mission to an asteroid by 2025 and an orbital Mars mission in the mid-2030s.
  • Increasing robotic explorations of the solar system as precursors to human trips and to conduct Earth observations necessary to improve our understanding of changing weather patterns and natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.
  • Closing the spaceflight gap by harnessing American entrepreneurship and ingenuity to competitively fund the fastest possible development of safe, affordable and made-in-America vehicles, while ending the outsourcing of this work to foreign governments — creating thousands of good American jobs in the process.

The Obama administration has worked with Congress over the last three years to advance this forward-leaning trajectory for NASA that maximizes our opportunities in space while pushing the boundaries of inspiration and discovery. And now we are seeing extraordinary progress and tangible results — possible only in America — that are expanding the realm of what’s possible in space.

  • This year, for the first time in history, a private U.S. company built, launched, docked, delivered and recovered a capsule to and from the ISS — and this system’s second historic mission is at the ISS right now. By investing in American companies and ingenuity, we’re spurring free-market competition to give taxpayers more bang for the buck while enabling NASA to do what it does best — reach for the heavens.
  • To reach for the heavens, NASA is now advancing a flexible launch system to propel Americans farther out into the solar system — going beyond the Moon to asteroids and eventually to Mars.
  • To help unlock the secrets of the universe, NASA is building the world’s most advanced space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will allow us to see deeper into space and further back in time than ever before.
  • NASA’s budget supports a plethora of additional science missions that enable us to further push the frontiers of exploration. NASA spacecraft are now on their way to Jupiter, the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto, and beyond the solar system itself.
  • Earlier this year the whole world saw evidence of NASA’s scientific prowess when its engineers put the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars using the most audacious of all landing systems. If anyone had doubts about our technological leadership in space, there’s now a one-ton, plutonium-powered, laser-wielding piece of American ingenuity cruising around Mars that demonstrates that even the longest of odds are no match for America’s unique blend of technical acumen and gutsy determination.

Under President Obama’s leadership, America’s space program is once again on the move — pushing boundaries and helping to achieve our boldest aspirations. This progress comes not just because the president has tapped into the talent and tenacity of our aerospace workers, but because he also has harnessed the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that has always made America great so that NASA can focus on doing the hard things.

I was fortunate to grow up around Apollo-era engineers, who taught me that nothing is impossible if we set our sights high enough. But they also taught me that if you don’t have your facts straight and arithmetic in order, rockets just won’t fly. And unfortunately, the space plan offered by the president’s opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, just doesn’t fly. His trajectory would take our space program far off course.

For example, Romney’s budget plans would require slashing important investments in our space future, and could force the deepest cuts to the space program in almost 40 years. These cuts could devastate the critical investments we need to close the spaceflight gap, continue unlocking the secrets of the universe and ensure a bright future in space.

Rather than outlining the areas of the space budget it would cut, the Romney campaign seems more bent on convincing the American people that we are a nation in decline. The Romney campaign made that point again in September when it released a space policy white paper that conceded American leadership in space to the Russians, discounted the upward trajectory that has taken us to the recent historic landing on Mars and cribbed much of what is already in the Obama plan. Romney’s central point seems to be an echo of the erroneous claim that NASA and America’s space program are adrift with no clear strategy or goals, while he fails to outline his own strategy, commitment, goals, dates or destinations for anything beyond low Earth orbit. America’s economy, national security and sense of discovery deserve better.

I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with President Obama in the White House and see firsthand his extraordinary commitment to NASA and our space program. He is determined that our endeavors in space continue to be engines of economic progress, national pride, national security and high-tech job creation. Unlike Governor Romney, the president has confidence in America’s continued ability to lead the world in space. By contrast, Governor Romney’s rather petite space plan mistakenly claims that “the United States has no clear plan for putting its own astronauts into space,” but then goes on to embrace the president’s own plans for partnering with U.S. industry to do just that. The governor has not only offered a plan that is void of details, he’s also hopelessly lost in space.

Jim Kohlenberger is a former White House science and technology policy adviser to two U.S. presidents.