NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, testified before the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on Feb. 24th. He was there to present President Obama's plan for NASA, particularly for Obama's decision to cancel the Constellation program. Constellation was George W. Bush's human exploration program that included the development of two new rockets, the Orion human module, everything it takes for a trip to the Moon and an eventual but vague goal of landing on Mars some time after 2020.
President Obama's plan for NASA is to cancel the Constellation program in favor of promoting the already booming private rocket industry. NASA also escapes Obama's freeze on discretionary spending; indeed, NASA is seeing a better than average increase – significant given the fiscal environment and election year. What Obama's plan does not have is a goal, no American flag on Mars.
The Senate grilled Bolden mostly on the lack of a goal. Bolden would later conceed, “Mars is what I believe to be the ultimate destination for human exploration in our solar system.” His comment is not reflected in Obama's plan in any specific form and may have been more of a personal statement.
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The AP's take:
Skeptical senators are telling NASA's chief that the space agency lacks a goal and destination.
Earlier this month, the White House killed the previous administration's plan to back to the moon. The space shuttles will soon be retired.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says his agency has an ultimate goal: Mars. But he says it's more than a decade away and NASA needs to upgrade its technology before astronauts reach the Red Planet.
Bolden says that on the way to Mars, astronauts will probably stop first at the moon, an asteroid and other places but with no particular order.
Three senators and the agency's former chief astronaut said that without a specific goal, NASA is going nowhere, wasting time and money.
It is worth pointing out that the loudest Senators on the subcommittee were those representing states that would see significant lay-offs in the absence of shuttle or Constellation operations. David Vitter among them. It's a shame that Senators with NASA centers in their states are the most vocal proponents of space exploration. Maybe it's because NASA has truly failed to inspire in large part because it is encrusted with unimaginative, bloated corporations like Lockheed and Boeing.
The Senate subcommittee is missing the point of Obama's decision. While they are laboring over whether we're going to the Moon or Mars and regional jobs, Obama is taking the first whack at what has crippled NASA for decades: the contract and procurement process. His space strategy is characteristic of Obama's general approach to science: prudent and unflashy.
Constellation was flashy. It included the design, testing and development of (1) not one but two new huge rockets, one of the which, the Ares I, would have been taller than the Saturn V; (2) a manned vehicle, the Orion capsule, which sat on top of the rocket the old-fashioned way; (3) everything it takes to go to the moon: a lander, spacesuits, tools, rovers; and (4) eventually what it takes to go to Mars sometime after 2020. Lofty stuff and not all that imaginative.
And just like every other significant NASA initiative in memory (the X-33 comes to mind), Lockheed Martin, Boeing and their joint United Space Alliance (don't get me started) were waiting by the door. In some small part, the Ares rockets were to benefit from the shuttle technology that was incorporated. But rockets aren't Lincoln logs and you still have to assemble and test them. But it really just insured more contracts for NASA's abusive cousins, the famous military industrial complex.
Could Constellation be NASA's last mistake? Learning about all the crushing defeats for NASA (all the times the MIC ran behind, over-budget, failed to complete and walked away with more than the original contract) was a real disappointment for this space enthusiast. I've never known any different and, no doubt, NASA is 100% complicit in the failures. It's the shame clouding what should be a lofty enterprise.
Turns out, all this while, the private rocket industry has been a-boomin. Private enterprisers and rocketeers have been coming out of the wordwork. Whether it's PayPal founder Elon Musk's Falcon 9, a cheaper version of the staged rocket or Jeff Bezos' (of amazon.com fame) hush hush Blue Origin project, likely a vertical launch and landing vehicle, there is rocket innovation everywhere. Burt Rutan's suborbital SpaceShipTwo drops from the bottom of a plane and blasts into a space – a genuine reimagining of how we get to space safely and affordably.
They say no matter where you're going in space, the hardest part is the first 200 miles, getting off of Earth. The biggest obstacle to space exploration, whether it's a routine space station visit or its a Buck Rogers interplanetary mission, the budget will mostly go into escaping Earth's gravity. It would be all well and good to relive Apollo but, if we mean to have a long-term investment in human and robotic space exploration, we need to figure out how to get off this planet cheaply and, therefore, more frequently.
Obama is making an unheard-of $6 billion investment in this burgeoning rocket industry. Not only will NASA begin to contract payload delivery to space (Bush was dipping his toe in the water), but flying humans to space will be contracted as well. The bids will be competitive (SpaceX was one of the first successful bids), the process open and payment will be on delivery. Thus, cost-control and innovation will be promoted... finally. I hope this is a model for the future.
But, yes, America has no shuttle and no new fancy rocket to the Moon. We have to depend on Russia to get to space for a few years. It's humbling; it's a crossroads for America's space exploration policy. I, for one, think Obama is doing the prudent and forward-looking thing for the long-term needs of NASA and human space exporation.
More on the Senate hearing today.
PS – I sincerely believe that space exploration should be a progressive cause; for me, it's the very definition of a progressive idea... just has to be done right.