Barack Obama ran for U.S. president on the twin themes of “hope” and “change.” Where NASA is concerned, we’ve certainly had lots of both. The next destination for our human space program has certainly changed. Instead of the Moon, a fascinating new world right next door to our own, we will now voyage to a distant and undesignated clump of dirt and rocks that we cannot reach until at least the middle of the next decade. And we are left to hope that new, privately managed space companies can replace NASA and its contractor teams when it comes to getting crew and cargo to the international space station. This is what passes for space policy today.
It is well understood that this policy was developed by a very small group of political appointees at NASA, the White House Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This was the policy that the new administration sent to Congress in the form of the fiscal 2011 budget, which canceled the ongoing Constellation program while failing to offer any coherent alternative strategy to replace the retiring shuttle fleet or to venture once again beyond low Earth orbit. While many anticipated change, outright cancellation was a huge surprise, a shock to Congress, the space community and the vast majority of those at NASA. Not even the NASA center directors knew it was going to happen.
At that point in time, the Constellation program was well along in developing the capability to ferry U.S. crews and cargo to the international space station and to take the U.S. and its international partners back to the Moon. One test flight, Ares 1-X, was successful despite claims from misinformed pundits that it would vibrate itself apart. Had NASA been allowed to continue the program, even with less funding, additional test flights would now be behind us.
These changes supposedly occurred at the behest of a review panel commissioned to assess the human spaceflight program against the backdrop of a budget for fiscal 2010 that provided radically less money for future human spaceflight programs than any recent submission. Sure enough, the panel concluded — as it was supposed to do — that Constellation was underfunded. But the panel did not recommend cancellation — it recommended that the program be properly funded. It was the Obama administration’s decision to cancel Constellation, when a more useful strategy might have been to extend the schedule at an intermediate funding level. Ever since Apollo, human spaceflight programs at NASA have been underfunded, but the space shuttle and space station were completed nevertheless. They were late, but they weren’t canceled. And despite their troubles, they were and are the envy of the world. The same could have been true had we stayed the course with Constellation.
None of this went well with Congress, which had supported Constellation on a strongly bipartisan basis for more than five years. Indeed, Congress and this administration continue to be at odds over the direction of the nation’s human spaceflight program, with no clear plan or policy yet in sight. In the meantime, the U.S. must rely on Russia to transfer crew to the space station, likely for at least several more years. How demeaning is that?
Perhaps the new private space companies will be successful. Certainly Space Exploration Technologies’ () recent unmanned test flight to the international space station is a superb technical achievement. But while noting the technical success, the question remains as to whether SpaceX or any other private entity can be a commercial success without continuing government subsidies. NASA itself has done everything possible to help SpaceX be successful. The agency thus far has provided $800 million in front-end financing to SpaceX, far more than the $100 million invested by its founder, and has committed $1.6 billion for future cargo delivery to the space station. This seems more like a normal government program rather than a commercial program, yet without the oversight and control that we normally expect to see when public funds are expended.
Nevertheless, there remains a long path ahead to qualify a vehicle to carry humans. With Congress indicating there likely will be a reduction in funding for so-called commercial space, will the new companies continue their work, or will they fold and leave NASA holding the bag? Is there really a sustainable business case for a commercial human spaceflight entity? If so, why does NASA have to put such a company in business? Does it make sense to bet our nation’s human spaceflight capability on the hope that one or more such entities will be successful in developing and qualifying a human spaceflight capability and will have a sustainable business case for the future? Any way you look at it, this is a very high-risk approach.
While most strongly support commercial space development, most space professionals are not in favor of government support of such development at the expense of our national human spaceflight capability, and clearly neither is Congress. Moreover, this administration has repeatedly stalled any effort to redevelop the capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, even though Congress has been steadfast in its support of that capability. After three-plus years of stalling, we now have a halfhearted effort to build a launch vehicle and capsule to send U.S. astronauts to an undefined place on an undefined schedule to accomplish an undefined mission. And that was only after Congress insisted that NASA develop a heavy-lift capability similar to, but lesser than, what would have been developed under Constellation.
While all of this churn has gone on, U.S. human spaceflight capability has been gutted by layoffs in the thousands and the consequent erosion of our industrial infrastructure, a specter not seen since Apollo ended. Our U.S. national space capability was developed over more than 50 years at great cost in personal sacrifice, hard work, loss of life and taxpayer money. To have one administration dismantle it in just a few years is a tragedy. It is beyond tragic. It is a national disgrace.
Where the U.S. was once the envy of the world for its human spaceflight program, now we are not even in second place. Who could have envisioned a few years ago that only Russia and China would be able to deliver humans to space at this time?
Where once the U.S. had a well-considered plan to return to the Moon and voyage to Mars, a plan that enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, now there is only a shambles, with NASA and Congress barely on speaking terms.
Where NASA and its contractor personnel were once excited and invigorated, now there is only thorough disenchantment.
Where the U.S. could point to a human spaceflight program that excited youngsters and encouraged them to focus on science, math and engineering, now many just want to know if there still is a NASA, assuming they wonder about NASA at all. I suspect there isn’t a person on the street who could tell you how many astronauts are on the international space station at any particular time, and certainly they couldn’t name one. That’s how excited the public is with NASA at this point.
Where the U.S. once could be relied upon to live up to its international commitments on space, that is no longer the case, as the international partners who have been burned by this administration will tell you.
Those of us who spent our entire careers in the human spaceflight business, sacrificing much in terms of family time and personal financial gain, are appalled at the state of the U.S. human spaceflight today. We made those sacrifices because we were proud of America, proud of what we dared and risked to do, and proud of our accomplishments. It was an honor to be a part of something greater than ourselves, the U.S. human spaceflight program.
It is beyond comprehension to see the damage created by this administration in just the past few years, spearheaded by a few individuals who consider themselves to be policymakers but who have had little experience in running programs or judging the risk to astronauts’ lives. Not a one of them has “the right stuff,” yet the administration continues to pay little heed to those legendary individuals who have demonstrated that they do, and who were instrumental in making the U.S. the premier spacefaring nation.
What can the U.S. be proud of that can be attributed to the current administration? It is difficult to point to anything of substance.
What will be the legacy of this administration in space? My view and that of many others is that this will be the administration to be remembered as having taken the U.S. from world leadership in space to third-place status in less than four years. Now that is “change you can believe in.” I’m missing the part where there is “hope.”
Frank Van Rensselaer is a former senior executive with NASA and in the private sector. He currently is a consultant. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.