Saturday, February 13, 2010

Obama's Bad News for U.S. Space Leadership

Newt has gone fuzzy again as when he endorsed anthropogenic global warming. The new Obama space initiative is like the little book offered to John in the Book of tastes sweet in the mouth and is sour in the stomach. It offers the vision of advance space technology to space advocates and free enterprise in space to conservatives. In reality it is unlikely to produce either. On top of that is the gratuitous cancellation of every element of NASA's manned space program. Now we start over with new efforts which will at best give us a reduced range of capabilities. On paper every new alternative can seem lower cost but so did the programs that Obama suggests ending.

It would make more sense to continue with the Orion spacecraft and the Ares I launcher to maintain our space presence. Critics have made exaggerated claims of problems with Ares I. It is clear that a management shake up may well be in order but to simply throw out $9 billion in investment is wrong. Saving these elements of Constellation would allow us to continue ISS operations without long-term dependence on the Russians and use these elements to support a more robust effort later, i.e. Moon or beyond.

NASA chief Charles Bolden speaks of the need to develop a heavy lift rocket but it is unclear that a practical/affordable rocket better than Constellation's Ares V is possible in the foreseeable future. On one hand Bolden complains that Ares V is behind schedule and then proposes an alternative that does the same thing that will arrive at even a latter date. This makes little sense. Furthermore without the Orion spacecraft what is it intended to launch?

I'm very much for advanced space technologies but of what use will they be if there is not commitment to a stable space program that can take advantage of them. Furthermore the most promising of them such as Dr. Chang-Diaz's plasma thrusters don't require massive budgets in the next few years and development can be expanded with modest budgets for many years to come. It is my primary concern is that the Obama plan is a step to the end of U.S. human space flight. In fiscal 2011 all existing NASA human space vehicles are cancelled in favor of commercial investments. Then problems with these new programs and budget pressure slowly squeeze them out of the out-year budgets as well. The end of our space program is then a fait accompli.

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