Reading comments posted in association with articles about President Obama canceling the Constellation program, the 2010 National Space Policy (NSP) and NASA’s subsequent attempts to regroup, I’m struck by the generalized, vitriolic rage voiced in many of them. President Obama is charged in hyperbolic language with ending the U.S. human space exploration program, and both disinterest about ramifications and often even malice are attributed to his actions. If the rage being expressed is actually frustration and fear associated with loss of Constellation-related jobs, it is understandable. It’s the same feelings exhibited by auto workers in Michigan when told by both presidential candidate Obama and McCain that their jobs weren’t coming back. More often, however, the rage is voiced as against the cancellation of a program dear to the heart of Americans, and against their will. That, unfortunately, is not entirely accurate.
While the Augustine commission report upon which the Obama Administration heavily relied in making the decision to cancel Constellation described strong public support for human exploration, as have past, similar surveys, the answer to a different question not asked is the important one: Compared with other areas of government funding, including health care, roads, education, defense and social welfare programs, where would you prioritize human space exploration? Unfortunately enthusiasm wanes in such a prioritization. Americans like and want a human space exploration program, they just see it as more expendable than other government programs.
An economist friend suggested that I shouldn’t use the analogy of automobile industry jobs going abroad and Constellation being canceled because one was market driven and the other was not. I disagree. The American people, like consumers, have choices regarding how their tax money is spent. That, proclaimed the winners, is what the recent election results reflected. If the bipartisan support for human spaceflight were as strong as we space enthusiasts would like to believe, legislators would prioritize it over other programs. But nobody is predicting large increases in discretionary spending consequent to the election, and certainly not for space exploration.
Constellation was doomed from its inception as a mismatch between the ways-means-ends required for any kind of programmatic success. As the Augustine Commission said, “NASA’s budget should match its mission and goals.” President Obama was therefore faced with continuing to pretend that in the worst economic times faced by the U.S. since the Great Depression and while U.S. troops are still fighting on foreign shores, an infusion of new money was feasible to allow programmatic completion anywhere near the timelines laid out in President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Exploration speech that led to Constellation; or pulling it off life support. Realistically, the responsible but difficult choice was the latter, and he made it. Further, he directed a new path for NASA and human spaceflight, one based not on a destination, but on long-term commercial development and sustainability. Sustainability — with its broad implications from human spaceflight to protecting the space environment — is increasingly recognized by all space sectors as key to space security in the future. Perhaps most importantly about the 2010 NSP, it looks at the world as it is, rather than how the United States wants it to be. While not always politically popular, it is the right thing to do for U.S. security. Ironically, that is what the American electorate has said it wants — security and the well-being of the American people prioritized over political expediency and popularity.
As an area of development, space has been an anomaly. Opening the American West, the aircraft industry and computers all required an initial government investment before it was feasible for the private sector to take over. That’s normal. Space is a development anomaly, however, as the government made the initial investments but the private sector has remained largely reactive to the government, except in communications satellites, and especially regarding human spaceflight. That must change for real development to occur, and President Obama has directed NASA to chart a course to allow and promote commercial development. It will take a considerable period of time, and it is possible that during that time we will see spacefarers from other nations walk on the lunar surface.
For those who see that decision as a betrayal, their recourse is through Congress. They are likely to find significant rhetorical support there — but far less financial support, reflective of the priorities of most of their constituents.
The 2010 NSP offers a realistic blueprint for renewal rather than a blueprint back to the Moon, or a space battleplan that threatens the very sustainability of the space environment required for security. The challenge for NASA is to develop innovative, affordable and yes, inspiring, plans to take America forward in human and robotic space exploration. The commercial sector’s challenge will be to not only facilitate NASA’s plans, but to innovate and implement plans of their own to go beyond NASA and truly develop space, perhaps in partnership with the government. The challenge for the military is to protect space as an environment for use by all, but especially the United States, without relying on potentially counterproductive, debris-creating, extremely expensive and technically unfeasible hardware. Taking up these challenges will yield not just benefits in space, but benefits regarding U.S. strategic leadership on Earth and in international security. The new blueprint offers new technical goals and opportunities ahead, and the revitalization of our strategic leadership. All are realistic goals worth pursuing. If we ignore them in favor of short-term, status-quo approaches, it will ultimately be at the peril of U.S. national security.
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