Guest Blog: Hang Together or Hang Separately

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I criticized the administration for badly presenting their new plan for human space exploration when they rolled out the NASA budget that they would present to Congress. Instead of focusing on a funding increase for NASA and on a new American initiative to send humans farther and longer into space, their message was lost among headlines about cancellation and cutbacks. While proposing that the United States plan an ambitious exploration program that no other country in the world could possibly undertake in the foreseeable future, they were criticized for giving up American leadership.

Like I said: I criticized the administration for this. And then I did the same thing.

I assumed that when everyone recovered from the shock of seeing the reset button hit, the positive aspects of the plan would become apparent. Instead, the shock spread too quickly, and the notion that the U.S. was giving up on human space exploration reverberated through both the space community and the general public.

What this public reaction proves is that the American people care deeply about NASA and human space exploration. Despite a few editorials and some op-eds proposing that we save even more money by letting robots do all our exploring, the overwhelming popular sentiment expressed over the past several weeks is for the United States to lead the world in space exploration: human and robotic.

Constellation will not provide that leadership. It has become a jobs program to do Apollo over again in a mock space race, this time to “beat” China or India. If the program were to continue, we would find ourselves a decade hence with a new rocket able to reach Earth orbit, but with no activity for humans to conduct since the international space station is scheduled to have been de-orbited. The Moon would still be another decade away (or — at best — eight years farther down the road, in 2028).

It is hard to imagine that public interest, not to mention patience, in exploration will be sustained by having the U.S. finally reach the Moon again 60 years after the Apollo landings. With such a program, NASA would take no steps beyond the Moon and only accomplish the same thing that other nations would also be on the verge of achieving. That future scenario — NOT the cancellation of Constellation — is how the United States could squander its lead in human spaceflight.

In retrospect, all of us — the administration and the broader space community — should have been more honest about the situation that has been brewing for the last few years. We should not have glossed over the lost Vision for Space Exploration and pretended that it could be fixed by a new vision. Even The Planetary Society report, “Beyond the Moon: A Roadmap to Space,” carried nary a word of criticism about Constellation. We should have learned from history: President Nixon initiated the space shuttle program and then cut back its funding and its goals. That downgraded American human spaceflight capability for decades. Similarly President Bush initiated the Vision for Space Exploration and then cut back its funding and its goals.

The new NASA plan provides more funding and more ambitious goals: human exploration beyond the Moon. Whatever may happen in the next decade as program realties bump into budget constraints, the space community needs to recognize that the Vision for Space Exploration was lost a couple of years ago. Constellation can be resurrected as a jobs program, but it cannot be resurrected as a visionary exploration program for America or the world. Yes, we might reach the Moon again by 2028 or a few years later, but is retracing our footsteps on that time scale a visionary goal?

Whether or not Congress approves the new NASA plan and budget, the future is not Apollo on Steroids. Our nation will not support spending the additional billions of dollars needed to fix Constellation and race to the Moon.

If Congress does not pass the NASA budget this year, we can count on it coming back next year — several more billion dollars and another year wasted. Instead of spurring private industry into action and development, we will have another year of uncertainty and dithering — and be no nearer to closing the gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the initiation of a new launch capability. My biggest fear is that we will ultimately unleash the anti-human space exploration folks to ask, “Why are we spending all this money and accomplishing nothing?”

We can agree that the new plan lacks specifics, is vague about the commercial incentives, the nature of the deep space rocket and the first steps on the Flexible Path. NASA gets that and that should be the first order of business after we get a NASA budget. But if we don’t start the new plan, we won’t be able to get the specifics.

During the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin admonished other delegates of the Continental Congress: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

I now say the same to the space community.

We can wish the past were different: What if Nixon hadn’t scaled back the shuttle program? What if the shuttle replacement had been planned years earlier so there would be no “gap” of American access to space? What if Constellation had been funded as planned to actually prepare for humans exploration of Mars? What if Apollo on Steroids had been instead a leaner, healthier lunar step into the solar system? What if…? But wishing won’t correct the past.

We can hang separately with science and exploration again fighting for their own pieces of the pie, or we can hang together and support a budget that will increase funding for NASA and encourage both industry and science to participate in an outward journey to new worlds. There will be plenty of time to argue for your favorite rocket, crew capsule and landing technique, not to mention favorite intermediate destination, operational readiness missions and precursor missions. There will be plenty of time — but only if we start now. Let’s hang together to create a new future of human space exploration.