The Obama Administration plan to reorganize America’s manned space-flight program is making rapid progress on at least one front: dismantling what was inherited from previous administrations. The last mission of the Space Shuttle is now only five months away, after which the United States will no longer possess an indigenous capability to loft human beings into orbit. The White House announced earlier this year that it would end the Constellation program begun during the Bush years as a shuttle replacement. Now it looks like Constellation will be shutting down even faster than planned, because administration officials have discovered that contractors failed to set aside enough money to cover termination costs. To find the missing money — about a billion dollars — companies will have to lay off thousands of workers and forgo planned development activities. So mankind’s future in the cosmos is slipping away fast as the first decade of the new millennium ends, courtesy of an administration that has other priorities.
Nobody should be surprised at how quickly the manned space-flight program is disappearing. The Bush Administration’s plan for what came after the Space Shuttle was not inspiring, and candidate Obama signaled during the election season that he didn’t want to fund it. His campaign-trail proposal to defer the program was withdrawn when advisors realized how many votes space workers might be casting in the vital swing-state of Florida, but once in office Obama decided to kill the effort completely. The half-baked alternative he has advanced of developing new “game changing” technologies and relying more on the private sector to sustain space-flight capabilities has been greeted with derision. Space flight seems to be the only facet of national life where this White House envisions an expanded role for the private sector, which makes its support for the commercial launch industry suspect.
Some doubters have been encouraged by the recent successful launch of a new rocket by commercial space company Space-X. They shouldn’t be: the Falcon 9 rocket is just the latest in a long series of similar launch vehicles that first began appearing in the 1950s. Although Space-X likes to fashion itself as a non-traditional provider, it will be just as dependent on money from the government as the big boys who currently dominate the launch business. In fact, if NASA hadn’t front-loaded funding for the program to prove Space-X launchers can deliver cargo to the International Space Station, it’s anybody’s guess whether the company could have shouldered the financial burden using private-sector funds. This all sounds just a little bit too much like the Clinton Administration’s abortive attempt to piggyback on commercial space demand in the 1990s to save money. When the dot.com boom went bust commercial demand dried up and the government was left in the lurch. It’s just a matter of time before investors get cold feet again, because space is no place for people who are seeking stable, predictable returns on their money.