Misconceptions Surround White House NASA Plan, Experts Say

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NEW YORK — Since being announced earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama’s new space exploration vision for NASA has met with a firestorm of outcry, confusion and misunderstanding.

Some of the most common misconceptions are that the plan would take NASA out of the business of human spaceflight, that the president has introduced an untenable gap in U.S. spacefaring ability, and that NASA’s budget has been slashed. There have also been claims that the new plan was designed behind closed doors.

NASA’s leaders are trying to set the record straight, and the agency is ultimately hoping that the fervor will die down and people will come to embrace the new direction — which aims to send astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025.

For now, misunderstanding and confusion about the plan remain common.

“The new administration didn’t come in and kill the space program, but that’s what you’re hearing a lot,” said Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut and member of the blue-ribbon panel President Obama put together last year to review NASA’s plans. That panel was chaired by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine.

In fact, the new proposal for NASA would increase the agency’s budget slightly, to $19 billion in 2011, a slight uptick from its 2010 budget of $18.3 billion.

“I wouldn’t say the new administration is doing anything to shut NASA down,” Chiao said. “Overall NASA’s getting a slight bump.”

Obama also asked for an extra $6 billion over five years to support a new initiative to spur private companies to develop commercial spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the international space station.

That commercial initiative may be partly to blame for the misperception held by some that NASA will stop flying astronauts to space. But it comes on the heels of NASA’s planned space shuttle retirement, which was initially announced in 2004 by former President George W. Bush as part of a then-new vision for space exploration aimed at returning to the Moon.

After the space shuttles retire — now potentially in February 2011 — America will be left without means to launch people to space. Only two more shuttle missions are currently scheduled after nearly 30 years in service.

Under the new plan, NASA would work on designing a heavy-lift rocket to carry humans to an asteroid and perhaps on to Mars, while the job of transporting crews to low Earth orbit would be left to the Russians and the private sector.

But this new plan doesn’t represent an end to U.S. space exploration, said science advocate Bill Nye, known for his role as TV’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” who will soon take up the post of executive director of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to the space exploration.

“The idea of the new space policy is to explore new places in space and continue the retiring of the space shuttle, which was started six years ago during the previous administration,” Nye said.

Yet the looming retirement of NASA’s three-orbiter space shuttle fleet has provoked fervent protest from the public, lawmakers and space leaders. Just recently, famed Mercury astronaut John Glenn — the first American to orbit the Earth — decried the decision to ground the shuttles.

“The world’s only heavy lift spacecraft and the U.S.’s only access to space should stay in operation until suitably replaced by a new and well tested heavy lift vehicle,” Glenn said in a June 17 statement.

A consequence of the shuttle retirement — also not unexpected — is that America will be temporarily left with a gap in its astronaut-launching ability, reliant on the Russians for rides to the space station. That situation was envisioned under the Moon-oriented Constellation program, which is marked for cancellation by the Obama administration.

“Some of what you hear now is that because of this new direction we’ve suddenly got this gap, but that’s not true,” Chiao said. “The gap was introduced in 2004. It was announced then that the shuttle was going to be retired in 2010. Even back then under the most optimistic scenarios there would have been at least a three-year gap.”

The more recent analysis by the Augustine committee found that the gap would have been at least seven years long under the Constellation program.

“Apparently it’s people in the states directly affected by the cancellation of the space shuttle just raising a stink and promoting misinformation,” Nye said. “We at the Planetary Society are excited about the new space policy because it’s going to take us to someplace new rather than someplace old.”

Another accusation made about the new directive is that it was concocted in secret by a group with a hidden agenda.

“A plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group in secret,” Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, said in a May statement to a Senate subcommittee reviewing NASA’s new space plan.

Yet others say the plan has very clear and public progenitors.

“The biggest misconception is that this whole idea was dreamt up in the White House behind closed doors with no space community input,” said space policy expert James Oberg, a former space shuttle mission control engineer. “The actual strategy is extremely similar to the Wesley Huntress study by an international astronautical group.”

He said the framework for the plan can clearly be seen in the results from that 2004 report by Huntress, a former associate administrator for space science at NASA and currently the director of the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution in Washington.

“It absolutely negates the idea that this is some sort of political plot,” Oberg said. “The plan went through years of analysis, modification and critiques by a worldwide team.”

The proposal also builds off of the findings from the Augustine committee’s investigation, members of that panel have said.

Oberg said some of the misperceptions about the plan stem from “some very clumsy presentation missteps” in the rollout of the proposal.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden himself has admitted that he regrets some mistakes made in presenting the plan.

“You’re looking at the guy responsible. I will take the heat,” Bolden said Feb. 6, two days before NASA’s first shuttle launch of 2010.

He minced no words in criticizing the new space plan’s rollout.

“Was it screwed up? Yes, it was,” Bolden said.

Furthermore, the situation has become clouded by politics that don’t always directly relate to the program itself, Oberg charged.

“The appalling clumsiness of the exposition of this policy is now having serious consequences,” he said. “I think it’s pretty clear that the country’s become polarized and its trust or distrust of the current administration is affecting the reaction.”

Ultimately, many are growing frustrated with the confusion about the new plan and the prolonged debate.

“We’re wasting money, but I think that’s just the nature of doing business with a democratic government,” Nye said.