Opinion: Will Obama’s Second Term Get Us Closer to a Big Goal?

President Barack Obama discusses his plans and ambitions for NASA during an address at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

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.

An Orion mockup used in testing in 2009. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

An artist’s concept of SLS; we’re still years from seeing the real thing. Image Credit: NASA

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 »


  1. Thank you for the excellent article Amy. You have done a fine job of highlighting what NASA desperately needs – long term planning and goals with stability of funding that makes achieving those goals possible. In the last session of Congress I believe legislation was introduced in the House to, as much as possible, “de-politicize” NASA. It didn’t receive the consideration it deserved because legislators were busy preparing for the impending “multi- million dollar wackadoodle festival 2012”, but it provided some interesting features. The NASA Director would be chosen from a pool of candidates selected by astronauts, engineers, and others who actually knew science. The Director, who would serve an eight year term, would be subject to advise and consent of the Senate, and would be similar in several respects to the Director of the FBI. In-house operations would also be modeled after those of the FBI with a more streamlined, long-term approach. You most certainly are correct Amy, we need much more than hopes, promises, and dreams that are subject to change or cancellation every four years. Now, NASA seems to be careening like a drunk driver trying to steer a Cadillac down a narrow street. To an asteroid? Why? Does Joe Lunchbox know what an asteroid is or where they can be found? To a LaGrange point? Why? Does Joe know what a LaGrange point is? To the far side of the Moon? Why? Joe wonders “Didn’t we already go there?” Joe Lunchbox, who is paying the bill and hears of cuts being proposed to “bread and butter” programs, needs and deserves the answers that can only be provided by a program with clearly defined, rational goals buttressed by stable funding. If a clear, achievable, inspiring goal that Joe can understand and support is not on the table, it should come as no surprise if he greets the news of a massive budget cut to NASA with, “Oh well.” Missions like the Curiosity MSL prove that we have genius-level highly-skilled individuals who can perform space exploration engineering miracles. We owe it to them, and all Americans, to establish a system that provides long-term planning and stable funding as far removed from the ebb and flow of political whimsey as possible.

  2. Amy, just a fact correction: It was President Reagan who got the ball rolling on the space station program, which begat Freedom, which begat ISS. I know this so well because it was his 1984 State of the Union address in which he announced the station that prompted me to move from Minnesota to Florida to finish school and get involved with the space program.

    Jim Banke

  3. Karol is correct. We need a plan that the average person that pays the bill, can understand and apreciate, and a plan that actually takes us somewhere in order for us to really do something when we get there.

    The plan shouldn’t be to just go there, make some rounds, come back and forget about the whole thing afterwards. The ultimate goal of spaceflight IMHO is the continuing, constant, ever-increasing human pressence in space. The vision of step-by-step human expansion into the Universe as envisioned by all the great space visionaries of the 20th century.

    This is the goal and focus the space program needs. If we don’t have this goal on the back of our head, and if this goal doesn’t drive our space policy decisions, then the space program will continue to be adrift, as it has been for the past 40 years.

  4. We could build upon the work of spacecraft like Opportunity to justify manned missions to Mars and beyond. An “aha!” discovery moment might kindle both scientific and public interest in sending humans beyond low Earth orbit. We have the expertise to do so. Our country needs to continue scientific and technological development for the sake of future generations. We can always “find the money.”

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