Officials from NASA have been namelessly warning that NASA
should expect some radical changes when the president’s budget is released on
companies develop spaceships to fly people to the space station, which by the
way, should be extended to at least 2020, and start working on a heavy-lift
rocket needed for future deep-space exploration initiatives.
The plan, though still officially under wraps, already has
drawn fire, including this statement from the former NASA administrator, Mike
Griffin, who now teaches aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in
A few presidents have been very supportive of the U.S. space
program, and numerous others have been more or less neutral. But only once
previously has a U.S. President recommended to the Congress that this nation
take a backward step in space. On that occasion, President Nixon cancelled the
Apollo program, a decision which in the long light of hindsight I believe will
come to be regarded as one of the most significant, yet strategically bankrupt,
decisions in human history.
But today, if the rumors we are hearing are true, then we
are seeing a second occasion on which a U.S. President has chosen to recommend
that the nation abandon its leadership on the space frontier. And, if such a
thing is possible, this decision is even worse.
Today we have in orbit a $75 billion dollar International
Space Station, a product of the treasure and effort of fifteen nations, and the
president is recommending that we hold its future utility and, indeed, its very
existence hostage to fortune, hostage to the hope that presently non-existent
commercial spaceflight capability can be brought into being in a timely way,
following the retirement of the Space Shuttle.
President Nixon’s decision to cancel the Apollo program at
least left us with the Space Shuttle. President Obama’s decision, if it is
indeed to be as is rumored today, leaves NASA and the nation with no program,
no plan, and no commitment to any human spaceflight program beyond that of
today — the last few flights of the Space Shuttle to complete the
International Space Station.
Griffin is not the only one firing preemptive strikes. Some
members of Congress have been reminding reporters that Congress is in charge of
the nation’s checkbook. Here are the words of Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, one of two politicians — three if you count John Glenn — who parlayed their interest in space (and their connections) to fly on the space shuttle:
If early reports for what the White House wants to do with
NASA are correct, then the president’s green-eyeshade-wearing advisors are dead
wrong. And I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for NASA, and for the
thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs.
Look, our space program is the very reason very we have
products like GPS systems, special firefighter equipment, climate change and
hurricane satellites, auto airbags, and health care devices such as kidney and
heart pumps and Lasik surgery.
NASA also has enabled America to have the most advanced
satellite technology for national security purposes.
And it has been NASA that has inspired generations of
young Americans to pursue careers in science, technology and engineering –
keeping the U.S. a global leader in those fields.
Not everyone is donning battle gear. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an advocacy group for the fledgling
space taxi industry, had this to say:
NASA investment in the commercial spaceflight industry is a
win-win decision: commercial crew will create thousands of high-tech jobs in
the United States, especially in Florida, while reducing the spaceflight gap
and preventing us from sending billions to Russia. This is on par with
the early days of aviation and the U.S. Airmail Act, which spurred the growth
of an entire new industry that now adds billions to the US economy every year.
At a time when job creation is the top priority for our
nation, a commercial crew program will create more jobs per dollar because it
leverages millions in private investment and taps the potential of systems that
serve both government and private customers. We have a tremendous opportunity
here to jump-start private activity in low-Earth orbit that will further lower
the cost of access to space and unleash the economic potential of space long
Working with NASA, industry can develop the capabilities to
safely launch U.S. astronauts just as commercial spaceflight providers are
already trusted by the U.S. government right now to launch multi-billion dollar
military satellites, upon which the security of our Nation and lives of our
troops overseas depend. Investing $6 billion will fund a full program of
multiple winners for commercial crew, so that robust competition in the
marketplace can reduce costs and generate innovation. We are excited to
see such a significant commitment from the Obama Administration and NASA
leadership for pursuing this important initiative for NASA and the nation.
Should be an interesting week.
(Mike Griffin, in the shuttle launch control center, may be gone from NASA, but he’s still weighing in. Credit: NASA)