Don’t Forsake U.S. Leadership in Space

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Space exploration has been the guiding star of American innovation. The Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs have rallied generations of Americans to devote their careers to science and engineering, and NASA’s achievements in exploration and manned spaceflight have rallied our nation in a way that no other federal program aside from our armed services can.

Yet today our country stands at a crossroad in the future of U.S. leadership in space. President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget proposal not only scraps the Constellation program but radically scales back U.S. ambition, access, control and exploration in space. Once we forsake these opportunities, it will be very hard to win them back. As Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan noted on the eve of the president’s recent speech at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.: “For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”

In terms of national security and global leadership, the White House’s budget plan all but abdicates U.S. leadership in exploration and manned spaceflight at a time when other countries, such as China and Russia, are turning to space programs to drive innovation and promote economic growth.

Last month, China Daily reported that China is accelerating its manned spaceflight development while the U.S. cuts back. According to Bao Weimin with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, “A moon landing program is very necessary, because it could drive the country’s scientific and technological development.”

In a recent special advertising section in The Washington Post, the Russian government boasted of its renewed commitment to human spaceflight and exploration. Noting the White House’s recent budget proposal, the piece said, “NASA has long spent more money on more programs than Russia’s space agency. But President Barack Obama has slashed NASA’s dreams of going to the moon again. … At the same time, the Russian space industry is feeling the warm glow of state backing once again. There has been concerted investment in recent years, an investment that fits in well with the [Vladimir] Putin doctrine of trying to restore Russian pride through capacity.”

Manned spaceflight and exploration are one of the last remaining fields in which the United States maintains an undeniable competitive advantage over other nations. To walk away is shortsighted and irresponsible. Our global competitors have no intention of scaling back their ambitions in space.

James A. Lewis with the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently said that the Obama administration’s proposal is “a confirmation of America’s decline.”

The 2011 budget proposal guarantees that the United States will be grounded for the next decade while gambling all of our exploration money on unproven research-and-development experiments. Although I am an ardent supporter of federal R&D investments, I believe it is unacceptable that the administration would gamble our entire space exploration program for the next five years on research.

The dirty little secret of this budget proposal is that it all but ensures that the United States will not have an exploration system for at least two decades. That is a fundamental abdication of U.S. leadership in space no matter how much the administration tries to dress it up. Our international competitors are not slowing down, and neither should we.

That is why I joined with 14 other members of Congress on a bipartisan letter to urge NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to allow his experts to develop better alternatives within the existing budget request. Unfortunately, the administration continues to reject any overtures from Congress to discuss a genuine, bipartisan compromise. It’s no surprise that so few members of Congress saw value in participating in the president’s speech at Kennedy Space Center.

I believe the plan that has been put forward not only has dangerous consequences for U.S. leadership and education, but also may endanger our astronauts’ safety and further limit our access to the international space station. Strategic concerns aside, it’s further troubling that the White House plan was hastily developed without proper vetting from NASA’s scientific, engineering and human spaceflight experts.

The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee noted in its report that “space operations are among the most demanding and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans.” NASA’s work force has 40 years of experience in human spaceflight, having learned by tragedy and success. That is why it should be the NASA experts not political appointees in the White House who determine the safest course of action for human spaceflight.

In a recent letter to me, the committee’s chairman, former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, wrote that the White House proposal “was not one of the specific options contained in our panel’s report.” Despite administration officials’ efforts to cloak their misguided proposal under the guise of an Augustine commission recommendation, the American people can see through this. Nearly every former and current NASA leader, astronaut, flight director or expert I have spoken with vehemently opposes the proposed changes to the exploration and human spaceflight programs.  

As Apollo 10 and 17 astronaut and “last man on the Moon” Cernan recently said, “Now is the time for wiser heads in Congress to prevail. Now is the time to overrule Mr. Obama’s pledge to mediocrity. Now is the time to be bold, innovative and wise in deciding how we invest in the future of America.”

 

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