I was very encouraged to read that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) expressed some thoughts on the new NASA budget this past week that agrees pretty well with my own view. I’ve generally been worried about the Senators and Representatives from Florida, Alabama, and Texas; since I am very much a proponent of the new NASA programs, I don’t want to see politicians trying to drag out the generally defunct Constellation program just to get some pork for their districts.
Some of Sen. Nelson’s comments:
“I think they made two tactical mistakes that gave everybody the wrong impression,” the Florida Democrat said. “The first one is that the president didn’t set what the goal is, and everybody knows the goal and that’s to go to Mars.
“The second mistake was that they said they are canceling the Constellation program. That sounds like they were canceling the manned (spaceflight) program, when in the same breath he said we’re doing the research and development for a heavy lift vehicle, and they were putting all their eggs in the same basket of getting to the space station with the commercial boys.”
The most frustrating thing to me about the general space-blogger explosion in response to the new NASA budget and programs is that they all seem to have been screaming, “Obama cancelled the manned space program!” That has never been true; he cancelled the already-way-behind-Constellation program. Cancelling the human spaceflight program would look something more like erasing NASA’s Exploration Systems and Space Operations Mission Directorates. ESMD is, in fact, getting the large bulk of the new NASA money, and it’s earmarked specifically for new human space programs and technology. I have even seen news reports that talk about the NASA “budget cut,” when in fact the budget is increasing by a phenomenal $6 billion in the next five years.
What gives? Why do all the commentators think that what’s going on is the exact opposite of what’s actually happening? It could just be the people at Marshall SFC and the fans of Mike Griffin (who frequently pontificates that CxP’s thrown-together-knee-jerk-Columbia-reaction approach is the best and only way to get into space) don’t want to see Constellation’s vehicles go, but that is hard to understand given how far behind schedule Ares I is, how Ares V and Altair don’t exist yet, and how Orion keeps shrinking in capacity and capability. They’re also not everybody in the space community…and I’d expect the rest to be excited about the expanded budget and the new mandate for NASA to go ahead and put modern technologies on their vehicles, instead of sticking to Shuttle-era (that’s the 70’s, folks) stuff. I think Sen. Nelson hit the nail on the head – most of the media have conflated “Constellation Program” with “Human Space Program,” and the lack of an explicitly articulated space goal direct from the President is hurting right now. NASA Administrator Maj Gen Charlie Bolden clearly thinks that the goal is to get people to Mars by about 2030, and President Obama even asked, in his call to ISS astronauts last week, what it would take to get to Mars and beyond.
So I think President Obama desperately needs to give a Space Address, in which he articulates The Goal and expresses American spaceflight ambitions in a way that deals with the issues that Sen. Nelson identified. I think I know, from the budget documents, Bolden’s remarks, and what little we’ve heard from the White House, what would be in this address (again, see my post “NASA, unleashed!“). So, here’s what I think he should say. Everything here is factually accurate, based on the budget numbers and Bolden’s statements. The dramatic difference is that it leaves no ambiguity as to the positive position of our human space program. Obama could give this speech, or something like it, tomorrow. And he should!
“The Space Program is the epitome of American aspiration and ability. NASA explores the universe with its telescopes, the planets and moons with its probes, and the Earth with its satellites. But nothing embodies NASA like the human space program. We still identify NASA intimately with the Space Shuttle, Space Station, and the Moon landings in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Americans owe a surprising amount of our modern national character and technical ability to NASA’s efforts.
“In the last few decades, NASA has proceeded on its missions without a clear goal. The Space Shuttle and International Space Station are incredible technical achievements, but humans have not set foot on another world – something which we are more than capable of doing – in almost 40 years. The 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, and the Constellation Program of vehicles that grew out of it, helped re-establish that missing goal by setting NASA on track to land on the Moon once again; this time, to stay.
“However, the progress on that program came in fits and starts. There were some major successes, some major failures, and overall the program moved more slowly than expected. So, I assembled a panel of technical experts, aerospace-industry insiders, astronauts, scientists, and analysts. They conducted a thorough review of NASA human spaceflight activities, and found that we were not on track to meet the 2004 Vision’s goal of landing on the Moon by 2020. In fact, we would arrive sometime around 2030, and in the meantime we would lose our ability to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA was on an unsustainable and uninspiring course.
“I grew up in Hawaii, watching the Apollo astronauts come back to our shores after their epic journeys to the Moon and back. I know what a powerful human spaceflight program can do for our nation. And our space program is just as critical now as it was in the 60’s. Americans of all walks of life, and people the world over, depend every day on the technologies and capabilities of our space missions.
“That is why I am directing NASA to re-task the Constellation Program. America needs innovation, it needs ambition, and it needs commitment. So, I want to see our astronauts at Mars, no later than the year 2030. I want NASA to pull out all the stops and do everything it takes to meet that goal, so I am increasing the NASA budget by six billion dollars over the next five years.
“We will reach this goal in a series of incremental steps. Just as the Gemini program developed and tested the technologies and techniques that led to Apollo, and just as the early Apollo missions perfected those techniques before we could land on the Moon, NASA will develop a suite of pathfinder missions that will pioneer our exploration program. We will rendezvous with and put human boots on asteroids. We will learn not just to live and work, but to build in space. We will send human beings out to Mars orbit and back, and put outposts on Mars’ moons. We may even visit the other inner planets to demonstrate these new capabilities.
“The existing development on the Ares V heavy lifter will transition directly into research and development on heavy-lift rocket technologies. The new generation of Ares rockets will launch the fleet of crew capsules, landers, planetary habitats, and Earth-departure stages necessary to explore the other worlds in our Solar System.
“I am also extending the life of the International Space Station to at least 2020, and increasing funding for research on the Space Station – making it into the laboratory it was meant to be. I am directing the NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate to develop new technologies and capabilities for human trips to Mars and beyond. The new NASA budget sets aside billions of dollars for game-changing research programs. Our engineers on Earth and astronauts on the space station will work on new engines to get astronauts to Mars faster, inflatable structures that can be unfolded and assembled in space to provide comfortable living spaces, and centrifuge chambers for interplanetary spacecraft with artificial gravity.
“In order to better focus NASA’s resources on these exploration and development efforts, I have asked Administrator Bolden to cease development on the Ares I rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. Those programs have not been as successful as they need to be in order to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020, and they do not fit into the roles of shuttling astronauts to ISS or bringing them to Mars. I applaud the efforts of all the engineers and technicians that have participated in work on those vehicles, putting in their sweat and labor to give NASA the launch of its first new rocket in over twenty years. These valuable efforts will lead directly into the new rockets and spacecraft that NASA will develop to bring humanity out into the Solar System.
“NASA has no choice but to retire the Space Shuttle, a venerable workhorse vehicle that has served America well since 1981. We will ensure that the last Shuttle flights are carried out safely and keep our international commitments to finish construction of the Space Station. Unfortunately, the Human Spaceflight Plans Committee found that the gap in American access to the Space Station after the Shuttle retires will likely be about seven years, even if we pursue development of the Ares I vehicle. We must rely on our international partners during the early years of this gap, but in order for the Space Station to be fully effective as a National Laboratory, we will need our own vehicles. For this purpose, NASA will rely on commercial providers; both using the proven vehicles that launch the satellites we depend on every day as well as spurring the development of up-and-coming launch systems. And I want NASA to carefully oversee the standards on these vehicles to make sure that our astronauts can get to and from Earth orbit in perfect safety.
“NASA is a tremendous symbol of American ambition, capability, and goodwill, and I support it wholeheartedly. With our international partners, the space program brings humanity to new heights of achievement. Our astronauts – scientists, engineers, and doctors – will go out into the Solar System. They will take with them new technologies and our best hopes. They will bring back new insights, new discoveries, and new stories that will benefit everyone back home on Earth. With this new program, we will go out across the Solar System, to the planets…and to the stars.”