In early August 2008, while on the campaign trail then-candidate Obama promised the Space Coast his support NASA’s plans to return to the moon, stated that he would work to minimize the gap between the shuttle program and to support the “program-of-record” – Constellation. However, when NASA’s Fiscal Year 2011 Budget was unveiled, it became apparent that Obama had no intention of doing any of these things. Workers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida were left with an uncertain future – and a sense of betrayal.
Obama was now backing private space groups as opposed to a national space program led by NASA. NASA’s new directive would not be to take America to the Moon, Mars and beyond, as it had been under the Vision for Space Exploration. Instead, NASA would now work to monitor climate change, develop new technology and other vague initiatives. The Obama White House has prided itself on its “transparency” when describing the politics behind these efforts; transparent is the perfect word.
The president attempted to clarify his statements during a speech at Kennedy Space Center on Apr. 15, 2010. Many thought that the president would make concessions to smooth things over. There would only be one small concession, for political reasons; President Obama conceded to allow for a stripped-down version of the Constellation’s Orion Spacecraft to be built.
The vague nature of the president’s explanation required that he explain – again. To that end, the president unveiled the “National Space Policy” on June 28. With all these attempts to “clarify” the president’s position only really clarified one thing – he never intended to support the Constellation Program.
Members of Congress were less-than-impressed with the president’s vague space agenda. They have since started working to counter the president’s plans. There are bills in both the House of Representatives and the Senate; these bills however are radically different. Here is a comparison between what Obama suggests as well as where the House and Senate bills stand:
Obama – The shuttle program would be given funding to safely close it out. $3.3 billion would be dispensed over three years to promote private space firms. Constellation would be cancelled.
House – No additional shuttle flight.
Senate – Additional shuttle flight.
House – Cuts Obama’s $3.3 billion to $150 million over three years.
Senate – Cuts Obama’s $3.3.billion to $1.3 billion over three years.
House – Restructure Constellation program to promote the development of a heavy lift rocket and conduct manned flight to the International Space Station by 2015.
Senate – Develop heavy lift rocket by 2016. Orion Spacecraft would be a restored to full strength.
Kennedy Space Center has gone from a place that bustled with activity sending missions into space to a place bustling with job fairs, reeducation programs and seminars on how to brush up one’s resume. Many workers within the space industry expressed deep bitterness, for those that voted for Obama they also expressed buyer’s remorse.
The truly tragic thing is President Obama could have been the savior of the U.S. space program. There were management and budgetary issues within the Constellation Program – but an economically-savvy NASA Chief could have cleared that up (George W. Bush did something similar when he made Sean O’Keefe NASA Administrator).
Orion could have a universal mating adapter designed for it – so that it could fly on any number of launch vehicles – but until the Delta IV, the Atlas V and yes, the Falcon 9 could be pressed into service – Orion would ride on Ares. This would ensure continuity and reduce the time between programs. For those who argue, “There isn’t the money for that!” on can only ask, “Really?” President Obama pledged $6 billion for commercial space investment – seems like there is money available after all.
Efforts to save the Constellation Program could not save the symbols of the program from Obama’s appointed officials. The game of politics has never been a pretty thing. However, in terms of the Constellation Program – the politics of “change” have been downright petty. At Kennedy Space Center’s Press Site a large, illuminated board informed visitors about key elements of the Constellation Program, since Obama has called for the program’s cancellation – it has been torn down.
Now while some may cheer as all vestiges of Constellation are removed – they shouldn’t place much faith in in the President. As mentioned, President Obama initially voiced his support for NASA’s lunar program and to reduce the manned space flight gap. He did so again shortly after being elected. In this capacity President Obama has displayed his “John Kerry” streak in terms of space. Who can say what could cause him to “flip” back the other way from a “flop”?