It is now nearly a quarter century since the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, handing America’s manned space flight program its first big setback after a long string of successes. The years since then have been a continuous disappointment to people like myself, who as teenagers watched men walk on the Moon for the first time in 1969, and imagined we might one day live to see human footprints on Mars too. President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the final nail in the coffin of our dreams, a plan that will bring down the curtain on America’s brief flirtation with human exploration of the cosmos.
You wouldn’t guess that to read the administration’s public pronouncements about it space plan, which it describes as bold, innovative and “game-changing.” The president proposes to end a program called Constellation begun by the previous administration, which would have returned human beings to the Moon and then carried them on to Mars. That program is now deemed too expensive relative to the benefits it would generate, so the White House instead wants to spend money on new technologies that will “transform” the space enterprise, making it more “sustainable and affordable.” A key feature of the new path is reliance on private entrepreneurs, who will be encouraged to devise cheaper ways of getting to low-earth orbit than the costly rockets currently being used.
Like everything else President Obama does, his space vision was conceived with the best of intentions and grounded in detailed analysis. But it is burdened by the same technocratic naiveté that has already doomed his plans for reforming healthcare and dealing with climate change. Once the Space Shuttle carries out its last mission in 2011, NASA will be left with no way of transporting U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, meaning they will have to ride on Russian rockets. The commercial launch options the administration hopes to stimulate will take many years to develop — and in fact may never materialize, if the track record of the commercial launch industry is any indication.
Calling the administration’s new plan “bold” and “exciting” is just a positive way of saying it is risky. Past experience with other “transformational” ideas such as single-stage-to-orbit launch vehicles illustrates how one costly development setback or election upset can do in such thinly-supported initiatives. Unfortunately, technology development cycles tend to be much longer than political cycles, so the likelihood the Obama approach will stay on track long enough to bear fruit is not high. The more probable outcome is that it becomes the latest false start in the downward spiral of the human space flight program.
What makes Obama’s vision different from all the other dubious ideas that have brought us to this point is that the Space Shuttle is about to retire, so one more failed concept will leave NASA bereft of the means to accomplish its foundational mission. Perhaps that explains why, despite all the hoopla surrounding release of the new plan, there isn’t any firm goal for going back to the Moon or on to Mars. The “plan” is just to invest in a lot of neat technology, and see what we can come up with. That isn’t the way President Kennedy ran his space program. He said we were going to the Moon before the end of the decade, and 98 months later Americans were planting a U.S. flag on the lunar surface. That’s what real vision looks like in action.
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