To judge from his remarks at the Kennedy Space Center last week, President Obama has embarked on a generational reorientation of the nation’s space program.
He is charting a potentially exciting new course to explore the ultimate frontier, but skeptics — count us among them — are unlikely to be reassured until the president’s lofty rhetoric is transformed into concrete policy with explicit budgets and firm deadlines.
It was heartening to hear Obama offer reassurances that he is not trying to end the nation’s human spaceflight program. The nation needs a strong corps of active astronauts to compete with Russia, China and other countries for manned exploration of other worlds and to attract America’s best young people to a program that can maintain America’s leadership in the realm of space.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical about this plan.
Obama sought to justify the controversial decision to scrap the existing Constellation program by saying it relied on outdated technology and had fallen hopelessly behind schedule in the race to return to the moon. But $10 billion has already been spent on the program and, under the president’s schedule, NASA’s next manned flight won’t lift off for more than 10 years — sometime in the 2020s.
Setting a deadline for a date so far into the future, one that depends on support from presidents yet to be elected, is less than reassuring to anyone who wants to see America retain its leadership in the space program. That goes double for Obama’s vision of sending astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s, a quarter of a century from today.
Retirement of the space shuttle will oblige the United States to rely on Russia and the Soyuz spacecraft for a few years to transport U.S. astronauts — and our European, Canadian and Japanese partners — to the Space Station, which was heavily funded by U.S. taxpayers.
Obama made a small concession to critics by reviving the Constellation program’s Orion crew capsule as a stripped-down lifeboat for the space station. By some estimates, this will save a few hundred jobs at NASA, but shuttle retirement could eliminate some 9,000 jobs.
The $40 million that Obama promised to provide to retrain workers along Florida’s Space Coast who lose their jobs when the shuttles are gone will ease some of the pain. But the real challenge for Florida is to position itself to capture some of the jobs that Mr. Obama’s plan envisions as government money is redirected to private industry, which is now called on to lead the way into space with innovative plans and designs.
Exactly how and precisely when this will be done remains unclear, however. Florida’s congressional delegation has good reason to remain skeptical about Obama’s plans to alter NASA.
They should keep asking questions and pressing Obama to make the details clear. America needs to be the leader in space exploration. That’s been the goal since astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he piloted Freedom 7 on a 15-minute suborbital flight in May of 1961 — the year Obama was born — and it remains the goal today.