I heard the first whispers at the 2008 International Space Development Conference in Washington: one of the lead contenders in the fractious Democratic Party nominations, Barack Obama, wanted to cancel the new space program and transfer NASA's budget to education and global warming research. The human crewed space program would end. It was enough to make republican space enthusiasts hope that Hillary Clinton would win.
Sure enough, Obama's committee has come back and recommended canceling NASA's Constellation program, which would have returned humans to the moon by the end of the decade. After the shuttle retires, there will be no crewed spacecraft in development in NASA's budget. To my surprise, I agree with this decision but for totally different reasons from Obama.
The far-left have hated the space program for decades, even though they constantly point to Kennedy for proof that they love it. They believe it's a waste of precious government resources that should go to the poor, ignoring that thousands of jobs and brilliant technical innovations have come from the space program, helping to make the United States rich.
But Obama could not use social justice as an excuse for canceling Constellation without huge middle-of-the-road political fallout. Most Americans have grown up taking it for granted that they are way ahead in space travel. If Obama just shrugged off that lead and handed it over to the Russians or the Chinese he would be a one term president. It's the things voters take for granted that are most dangerous to mess with, regardless of what the pundits say.
Instead Obama is pretending there still is a space program by pointing to upstarts like SpaceX and promising that they will one day take Americans back into orbit. A corporation rather than NASA will do the heavy lifting in developing the next generation of crewed space ships. Amazingly, Obama has discovered capitalism and the free market. I suspects he cares little whether they actually succeed, and if SpaceX fails he can say Americans would be in space except for free market failure--not his fault.
But SpaceX might surprise both skeptics and President Obama.
The biggest problem for SpaceX was that NASA's
Constellation was a two part program: Ares 1, which would've carried crew to orbit, and Ares 5, which would have carried the lunar lander. Ares 1 was also to replace the space shuttle and resupply the International Space Station, exactly what SpaceX wants to do with the Falcon 9 space craft. Thus, SpaceX was in competition with NASA for space station resupply--quite a conflict of interests.
NASA has so far reluctantly provided support to SpaceX, mostly because Bush made them with the COTS program, but with this little company doing the same thing NASA was going to do at a tiny fraction of the cost, well, it was embarrassing. The air force has given SpaceX way more support as they seek cheaper flights for their spy satellites.
Also, the Ares 1 has come under fire even from NASA engineers as potentially shaking astronauts to death. NASA says it can fix this problem and I'm sure they can, but how much will that complicated fix cost?
I believe private industry can and will take over supply to Low Earth Orbit. NASA paved the way for this over 40 years ago, and so many companies and countries launch satellites now it's dizzying. It's the next logical step for a private company to start taking people to orbit, and SpaceX's plan, if achieved, will take a lot of people to orbit, maybe even private citizens going to Bigelow's space hotels.
But the biggest problem with NASA's Constellation program is that it was essentially an Apollo re-dux--going where we'd been before with even less purpose. No one was excited about it. I'm not saying that humans should never go back to the moon, but I am saying that NASA should be going where no one else dares: Mars.
At that same conference where I heard the first whispers of Constellation's end, I also heard a talk given by Dr Neil deGrass Tyson, head of Hayden Planetarium in New York. The thrust of his speech to a room mostly full of NASA lifers was to try and make them understand that NASA is not a self-funding organization. It runs on tax dollars, and that flow relies on a supportive public. Unfortunately, the public doesn't get excited about space telescopes and missions to Pluto. They don't sit glued to their TVs for shuttle launches. The public gets excited about boots on the ground in another world. They get excited about history-making firsts.
Many geologists were thrilled to get rocks from the moon, but that science was an after thought that Kennedy never envisioned. Science piggybacked on public excitement.
Of course Obama will never support a Mars mission no matter
what he says. That's a bait and
switch meant for voter consumption.
Cancel the lunar program but give some nebulous promises about trips to
asteroids or the moons of Mars in the distant future.
But the next government might be moved to send Americans to Mars when the Chinese start to succeed with their space exploration. Public sentiment will shift quickly if America falls behind. If I were head of NASA, I would take all the money meant for Constellation and get some smart people designing new and innovative ways to get to Mars. Forget the Apollo redux and be part of an exciting future.
NASA can be the leader again, but it has to stop living in the past.