Some brief comments on President Obama’s NASA speech

While President Obama’s speech this afternoon wasn’t a slam-bang Kennedyesque dream vision, I thought he expressed some good ideas. Of course, there aren’t too many substantial differences between the plan we heard and the plan Charlie Bolden presented in February; the President’s remarks today sounded much more defensive than visionary. Given the amount of criticism his NASA ideas have received, I don’t really blame him…but still.

The most frustrating thing to me about the new NASA plan is how distorted it has become in the media. The first thing Obama said this afternoon was that he is increasing NASA’s budget by $6,000,000,000 – at a time when he has frozen discretionary spending and we are looking for ways to deal with crisis after crisis. There were even headlines two days ago to that effect. Ohmigosh, the budget is going up! Well, yeah. It went up in February. It’s a wonder that the story in the media since then has been uniformly about NASA budget cuts; that attitude has permeated commentary even from sources inside NASA. It’s amazing how an idea like that can spread, even in the face of direct evidence of exactly the opposite.

Most of President Obama’s remarks today were familiar to me. Billions of dollars for robotic precursor missions, game-changing technology research, technology demonstration missions, and new human spaceflight capabilities. Buying launches from American companies rather than having NASA contract out for launchers to call its own, to close the LEO access gap. Extending the Space Station. All this we’ve seen before, and I still think all this sounds good.

We heard about two new development programs this afternoon: an ISS crew-escape vehicle based on the Orion capsule, which will evolve into our deep-space crew vehicle designs, and an accelerated heavy-lift program with the goal of having ready-to-build designs by 2015.

The Orion-derived crew lifeboat I think is stupid. To me, this looks like either pandering to the people at Marshall Space Flight Center who were annoyed that they didn’t have a capsule to build, pandering to the people who think tat a Dragon capsule wouldn’t meet NASA safety requirements, or pandering to the pining-for-the-Cold-War neocons who have been crying about how our ISS astronauts will be “held hostage” without US access to space. Having an ISS lifeboat may sound like a great idea, but the station already has a few reliable Soyuz vehicles for exactly that purpose. An Orion lifeboat is a waste of money and effort. The one good thing about this program is that it is supposed to feed into our designs for true space vehicles – but I would have preferred it if the President had just told the Orion teams to concentrate on that purpose.

The accelerated heavy-lift program is more exciting. I’d love to see NASA developing the capacity to fling wonderful new hardware to high Earth orbit and beyond, and I understand that it is valuable to keep the engineering expertise to develop such a vehicle within the NASA organization.  I’m very happy to see a date of 2015 attached to the designs for that system – and remember that Ares I was projected to be ready no earlier than 2018, and Ares V around 2030 – so the new heavy lift program is a much more ambitious one than either of these!

In addition to these new programs, President Obama finally announced a series of targets and dates. Criticisms of the new NASA vision have come from all across the board and contained all sorts of specific elements – but the one shared element, heard from ’round the space community, were: where is NASA going? and when is it supposed to get there?

Well, today we heard the following:

  • Ready-to-build heavy lift designs complete by 2015.
  • Human crews fly beyond the Earth-Moon system before 2025.
  • Human crews land on an asteroid sometime between 2025 and the mid-2030’s.
  • Human crews orbit Mars by the mid-2030’s.

Human landings on Mars are supposed to follow “shortly thereafter.” I’m thrilled to see these dates; they are nicely within my lifetime and identify specific targets. Perhaps they could have been presented with a bit more polish and panache, but I’m happy to have them!

(Side note: The Augustine Commission found that, with $3 billion/year extra funding, the Constellation Program would miss its 2020 deadline and get us to the Moon around 2030. So….eat it, Mike Griffin.)

Finally, I want to comment that it occurs to me that a lot of people in the space community have been contrasting Obama’s new plan to Kennedy’s speeches in the early ’60s. Obama’s speech today couldn’t have illustrated the differences between the two Presidents’ characters better – Kennedy seemed to run on pure emotional vigor in his space speeches, while Obama was his usual cool, collected, rational self. I like what he’s planning, but it wasn’t exactly couched in stirring rhetoric. However, I don’t think that speaks poorly of Obama’s commitment to space exploration. I think the difference between Obama and Kennedy is simply one of pragmatism. When I look at the goals he laid out, and compare them to Norm Augustine’s comments at the opening of the space summit (made as I began this post!), they make a lot of sense in that light. What Augustine said is that NASA’s goal, in the eyes of his commission, the NASA administrator, and the President, is to land people on Mars – but the trouble is that we just don’t have the technological capability yet to do that. Obama’s vision for NASA starts with developing that capability.

Put another way, imagine Kennedy had Obama’s character. His stated goal, expressed in that famous speech to a joint session of Congress shortly after Alan Shepard’s first flight, would not have been to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth. It would have been to develop and demonstrate technologies like orbital rendezvous, multi-person spacecraft, computer control of spacecraft, heavy lift, and planetary landing stages. Essentially, it’s as if Kennedy’s goal had been to complete the Gemini program. But the deadline for completing that goal would have been shorter than a decade, and the story wouldn’t end there. The groundwork would be in place for whoever was President at the time of Gemini’s completion to say, “okay, we’ve got that under our belt…now let’s get to the Moon!”

In short, Obama could have said something like, “Let’s land on Mars by 2040!” But instead, he gave us more incremental, shorter-term goals with a much higher chance of success. And he laid the groundwork for a future President to say, “okay, we can keep people alive in space for years and get to Mars orbit…let’s put boots on the ground!”

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