Politics and space exploration – both manned and unmanned – are inextricably linked. Big decisions and goals come from the President and go through congress for funding, which means that when a new President takes office he can radically change the nation’s path in space. This is particularly true in NASA manned program, whose missions are far costlier than their robotic counterparts. So for those excited by space exploration, President Obama’s reelection brings good news: space policy will remain unchanged. But the flip side is that NASA is still facing budget cuts, the effects of which we’ll likely still be feeling when a new President comes into office in four years.
History tells us that the nation’s approach to space changes with each new president. Dwight Eisenhower, who was in office when Sputnik 1 was launched, wasn’t too focused on the short term race to space. Instead, he focused on robotic missions that could yield scientific, commercial, and military payoffs. His successor, John Kennedy, took a different stance. Unable to ignore space as a battle ground in the Cold War, the young President looked only at the short term when he entered NASA in a race to the Moon. Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson supported Apollo’s goals.
Things changed when Richard Nixon took office in 1969. Goals got smaller. Nixon nixed NASA’s post-Apollo plans for a base on the Moon and missions to Mars, choosing instead to build an orbital space station and a shuttle to ferry the astronauts back and forth. But the station was put on hold for cost reasons leaving NASA with a vehicle to shuttle astronauts between Earth and nothing. Gerald Ford took the torch from Nixon and supported with shuttle program during his two-and-a-half year term in office, as did his successor Jimmy Carter who also stressed the importance of space as a front of national security. Ronald Reagan supported NASA’s then-ongoing shuttle program while beginning the incorporation of commercial spaceflight; he set up the Office of Commercial Space Transportation that continues to regulate all commercial launch and re-entry operations.
Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush brought big goals back to manned spaceflight. He bumped up the agency’s budget in tough economic times and on July 20, 1989 — the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11 — announced the bold Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). He wanted to build a space station called Freedom, establish a permanent presence on the Moon, and land a manned mission on Mars by 2019. But the price tag associated with this plan was prohibitive and nothing came from SEI.
Bill Clinton followed Bush with a more measured approach to spaceflight. He oversaw the transition from “Space Station Freedom”, an effort began under the Reagan administration, to the International Space Station, and implementation of a new national space policy where gaining knowledge of the Earth, the solar system, and the universe, as well as strengthening and maintaining American national security became central. But President George W. Bush brought a repeat performance of his father’s lofty vision. In 2004 he called for a return to the Moon by 2020 as a stepping stone to Mars, completion of the ISS, and retirement of the shuttle. Bush’s plan yielded NASA’s Constellation Program that Obama cancelled when he took office in 2008. Instead, our current President has NASA focusing on getting men to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the mid-2030s using the new Space Launch System. Obama has also increased the participation of the private sector in spaceflight activities.
From our current position, there look to be some exciting missions on the horizon. We should see an unmanned Orion launch on a Delta rocket in 2014, the first unmanned SLS-Orion combination sometimes in 2019, and the first manned mission in 2021. In the hope of doing something new instead of the same lunar missions NASA undertook in the 1960s and 1970, there’s talk of landing on the Moon’s farside (an idea bounced around among flight directors in the late 1960s) or establishing a base at the Lagrange point behind the Moon (from our Earthly perspective).
But whether or not these missions will fly is up in the air.
Funding is part of the issue. The Budget Control Act of 2011 is set to cut $1.7 billion from NASA’s fiscal 2013 budget and a number of tax cuts are set to expire. Agency funding may become a question of whether national spaceflight programs – both military and civilian – will be hacked to pay bills or funded as part of a long-term investment into research and development program that will create jobs and boost the economy.
Another, and bigger, problem is the constant flux in vision. Since Orion and SLS have only been a priority since Obama’s been in office, they’re both still largely on paper. Without actual flight hardware, both rocket and spacecraft are vulnerable. And this being Obama’s second term means a new president will take over in 2016. At that point, and if everything stays on schedule, SLS will still be a year from flying when Obama’s successor takes office. If in 2016 we still don’t have flight hardware and the necessary launch support systems in place, there’s a chance we’ll never see SLS take off. Budgets run over and schedules slip all the time in big spaceflight programs, and for SLS any setback could be fatal. And without SLS, Orion (if it’s built) will be all loaded up with no way to go.
But the biggest problem, I think, is the lack of sustainability. Apollo (including the Mercury and Gemini programs) was an outstanding program that took us somewhere, but it wasn’t something we could realistically use long term. The shuttle returned some great science, but it couldn’t go anywhere. The presidential refrain of going back to the Moon, to an asteroid, or to Mars sounds exciting, but it’s a soundbite. These missions come with enormous price tags and timeframes spanning multiple presidencies. It’s great for a president to bring up these goals and get people excited about space, but if the next person in office holds a different vision, progress towards that big goal will be lost and we’ll be no better off.
What we need is to lay a solid foundation in space beyond applying lessons learned from one program to the next. A sustainable, modular rocket (like SLS) and a reusable, multipurpose spacecraft that can send manned and robotic missions to destinations throughout the solar system from low Earth orbit to the planets and faraway moons would give us something to use on a variety of missions for decades to come.
But this won’t be a popular proposal; “let’s build something slowly that will last” isn’t half as sexy as “let’s get men on Mars in 20 years.” Unfortunately, with looming budget cuts and a constant rotation of the political powers that be, it’s unclear whether we’ll ever build the foundation for great space exploration we need anytime soon.Missions » Apollo »