Bolden: Hold The Line on U.S. Space Policy

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GREENBELT, Md. — In a sort of state-of-the-agency address here Jan. 20, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden warned against hitting the reset button on the space policies the Obama administration has set over the last six years.

“The worst thing, the absolute worst thing we could do would be to interrupt that progress and go back to the beginning again,” Bolden said in a speech during a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon. He spoke only hours before U.S. President Barack Obama was scheduled to deliver the annual State of the Union address.

Bolden touted such Obama initiatives as the commercial crew and cargo programs, saying there is now “wide consensus” these programs were “a good investment,” and that the model of funding companies to build, own, and operate spacecraft with NASA as an anchor customer should be leveraged for future exploration beyond the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX are delivering cargo to station now, and Boeing and SpaceX could launch astronauts there as soon as 2017 under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts they received in September.

Bolden also gave the administration credit for increasing the amount of Earth science research done aboard the ISS — a facility he said was once described as “a lousy platform” for Earth observations. Now, Bolden said, the station hosts the ISS-RapidScat ocean-wind measurement system and the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, with more Earth-facing instruments on the way.

Curiously, Bolden made it through his half-hour speech without once uttering the word “asteroid.” He offered no clue as to whether the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) would capture a free-floating space rock or pluck a boulder-sized sample of a much larger asteroid. The decision is supposedly imminent. NASA was to announce its choice in December, but punted until January instead.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission is the plan the White House came up with in 2013 in response to a gauntlet Obama threw down in a 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, when he challenged NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid rather than back to the Moon.

President Obama speaking at Kennedy Space Center in April 2013. Credit: NASA
President Obama speaking at Kennedy Space Center in April 2010. Credit: NASA

The mission, originally conceived as a rendezvous in the asteroid’s native orbit, has since evolved into ARM, which would use a roughly $1.25 billion robotic spacecraft to redirect some kind of asteroid specimen to the same lunar storage orbit NASA wants to use as a staging ground for future Mars missions. NASA thinks astronauts could visit the captured asteroid sometime in the 2020s.

Meanwhile, Bolden acknowledged the space policy he defended in his speech was laid in place by the very thing he warned against: a wholesale change of tack that wiped out the program of record.

“We didn’t quite go back and reset,” Bolden said. “There was an attempt made to do that, but we chose not to do that. We kind of took the work that had been done prior to this administration coming in and adopted and adapted some of it.”

Here, Bolden referred to the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule, major elements of which were conceived as part of the Constellation moon-exploration program put in place by the administration of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and dismantled by the current White House in 2010.

That the Obama administration has stood by SLS and Orion was less a matter of choice and more a matter of congressional fiat. In authorizing legislation signed in 2010, Congress ordered NASA to build a heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft, and to use whatever Constellation hardware and contracts could be leveraged to do it.

SLS and Orion are now scheduled to make their first crewed flight in 2021, to the distant lunar retrograde orbit where there may or may not be an asteroid some time soon, depending on whether ARM succeeds in capturing one (NASA officials have said it may well not).

“The president will announce his 2016 budget for NASA in February, and we’re expecting a vote of confidence in this direction, and the resources to continue our journey to Mars,” Bolden said Jan. 20.

An astronaut retrieving a sample from captured asteroid. Credit: NASA illustration
An astronaut retrieving a sample from captured asteroid. Credit: NASA illustration

Meanwhile, Bolden also issued the latest official reminder that although U.S.-Russia relations remain politically rocky, ties between NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency remain tight.

“Our relationship with the Russian space agency is excellent. It’s as good as it’s ever been,” Bolden said, adding that his counterpart in Moscow, Roscosmos Director General Oleg Ostapenko, is “equally anxious as I that the political leadership of the nation doesn’t do anything rash.”

However, Bolden acknowledged there may come a day when strained relations between the two senior space station partners finally begin to affect space exploration.

“I’m not naive enough to believe that no matter what we do, things will continue to operate as they do right now,” Bolden said.

Just before he left the stage, Bolden made an appeal to the many contractors in the audience, enjoining them to stick with NASA, even when doing so might be frustrating.

“Keep working with NASA,” Bolden said. “We’re tough sometimes, really difficult to work with, I understand that. But I tell you, hang in there, just keep moving the ball.”