Commentary | Squandering America’s Leadership in Exploration

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The following is from an April 28 speech at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute in Washington.

Today, I am deeply concerned about the state of NASA’s human spaceflight program and, ultimately, American leadership in space for the 21st century. This concern is not because I believe NASA isn’t capable of great things, or because the American people don’t support space exploration. They do. In fact, they hunger to do great things in space again. 

My concern is rooted in the Obama administration’s mismanagement of NASA and our relationships with our international partners. Simply put: Our exploration program is floundering. Since the cancellation of the Constellation program by this administration in 2010, we have seen an agency adrift, grasping for purpose and direction while receiving little support or leadership from the White House. 

Perhaps the best example of the administration’s mismanagement of our space program is its current plan to “lasso an asteroid” into lunar orbit. The proposal, unveiled in last year’s budget proposal, was hardly vetted before its release and has since been found to be poorly thought-out and lacking in support from both the American people and our international partners. No matter how much NASA tries to dress up or rationalize this proposal to the Congress and to the public, it continues to ring hollow. The selection of the asteroid as NASA’s near-term destination goal is little more than a line drawn from President Barack Obama’s April 2010 speech delivered at Kennedy Space Center, a speech he only gave after his cancellation of the Constellation program and its lunar mission set off a firestorm of negative press. 

The current asteroid mission was born not out of a strategic vision for American leadership in space but out of a reactionary need to justify the cancellation of the program to return to the Moon. Strategic space policy should not be made like this. And it’s precisely why a few years later I joined with Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) and several other of my colleagues in proposing reforms to NASA’s management to insulate it from politics. 

These reforms included a 10-year term for the administrator, just like the FBI director; an independent board of directors; and the ability for the agency to submit its own budget to Congress. I believe these reforms, all of which have been used successfully by other agencies, could be helpful in bringing stability to NASA’s programs and direction. 

I also have worked in the House Appropriations Committee to address NASA’s strategic direction — or lack thereof. I included language in the 2012 Appropriations commerce, justice, science spending bill to have the National Research Council convene a commission to review NASA’s strategic direction. The commission’s chairman, Dr. Albert Carnesale, said upon the completion of the review last year: “If you ask people in the bowels of NASA, in the field offices — and we spoke with everybody from the directors of each of the field offices to college interns and everybody in between — [the asteroid mission] is not generally accepted.” 

He also noted, “The more we learn about it, the more we hear about it, people seem less enthusiastic about it.” Unfortunately, NASA ignored the findings of the commission’s report and has pressed ahead with its misguided plans. 

The asteroid mission is not worthy of a great nation, and Congress has made it pretty clear that this is a nonstarter. Notably, Congress restricted funding in the 2014 omnibus bill to only develop technologies that could also be applied to missions involving the Moon and Mars. Most people believe the next administration is likely to abandon this uninspiring mission and pivot toward more compelling missions.  

Quite frankly, I believe it’s insulting to the men and women at NASA that this is all the White House will allow them to pursue. They know — and the American people know — we can do better. At a time when this administration is thinking small, we need bold, visionary thinking to infuse NASA with a destination and goals that will capture the interest and imagination of the American people. We need missions that push the limit and engage the public’s imagination. 

I am a little older than some of you, and can vividly remember the excitement in the country and around the world as NASA achieved remarkable milestones in space during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, culminating in the lunar landings. These missions spurred a generation of children to become scientists and engineers, fueling our country’s competitiveness and economic success. 

I still believe that our future in space lies in President John F. Kennedy’s call to go to the Moon. This remains as compelling a destination today as it did in the 1960s. 

Neil Armstrong, shortly before he died, said, “I am persuaded that a return to the Moon would be the most productive path to expanding the human presence in the solar system.” There is no question that a human return would galvanize the American people’s — and the world’s — attention. As Mr. Armstrong alluded, human missions to the Moon are essential to proving out the technologies necessary for missions to Mars.  

There is no question that we would want to test these capabilities for long-duration missions on the Moon — which is only days away from Earth in the case of an emergency — before we send American astronauts on mission to Mars that would take more than a year. Lunar missions also would restore the confidence of our international partners that the U.S. intends to lead again after a period of disarray in our space policy. 

It is also worth noting that since the abrupt dismantling of the Constellation program, this administration has also unilaterally terminated a Mars science mission with our European partners and just this year proposed mothballing the SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) mission right as it was ready to begin operations, another unwelcome surprise to our German partners. It is no wonder our international partners, who commit significant portions of their space budgets to NASA programs, are questioning just what the U.S. is thinking.

That is why — after years of this administration’s mismanagement of these international partnerships — a clear, strategic and coherent exploration mission is necessary now more than ever. And the global consensus for such a mission appears to be the Moon. 

Dr. Carnesale noted that his commission found “a great deal of enthusiasm, almost everywhere, for the Moon.” A lunar return accomplishes two important goals: 

n It reinvigorates our exploration program with a short-term mission that will capture the nation’s interest. 

n It provides an excellent testing ground for the systems and habitats necessary for eventual missions to Mars. 

This is the right thing to do in terms of both reasserting American leadership in space and contributing to our ability to go on to Mars. That is why I wrote President Obama in December, shortly after the Chinese rover landed on the Moon, urging him to convene a summit to revisit lunar missions, especially in light of steady advances by China. Unfortunately, the administration never responded.  

This White House doesn’t care about space, and it doesn’t seem to care that it is squandering America’s historical leadership in exploration as others catch up. It simply is not on its radar screen, which is unfortunate because we have never before relied so much on our space assets in our everyday lives. 

 

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee.