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Obama to NASA: don’t boldly go

At the end of January, President Obama announced a major change to NASA’s space program when he put forward his budget request to congress. This week congressmen from both parties criticized the White House plans, and took it out on NASA chief Charles Bolden, who appeared before House and Senate committee hearings to try to persuade lawmakers to support the new initiatives.

Obama’s proposal cuts spending on the US’s manned space program. NASA would also end its program to return to the moon, and seek more support from other nations for future missions. The proposal cancels the Ares I rocket, which Nasa has spent the past four years developing, as well as Orion, the crew capsule in development.

Overall, spending would increase by two percent. Most of the new money would go to private companies, which would replace NASA’s own spacecraft in providing transportation to and from the International Space Station. According to the New York Times, the Obama budget would spend $18 billion over five years “for the development of technologies like fuel stations in orbit, new types of engines to accelerate spacecraft through space and robotic factories that could churn soil on the moon – and eventually Mars – into rocket fuel.”

Some have welcomed the news. Steven Weinberg, Nobel-winning physicist and astronomer, says the unmanned approach is cheaper and advances science further: “For much less than the cost of sending a few astronauts to a single location on Mars we could send hundreds of robots like Spirit and Opportunity to sites all over the planet.” Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, wrote that “forestalling the moon mission in favor of perfecting the technologies that will allow us to reach Mars within some defined period ahead is sound.”

But, in my view, Obama’s NASA budget is penny-wise and pound-foolish. The privatization of space is problematic. Having private companies take up from NASA means abandoning years of institutional expertise. It looks more like the outsourcing of leadership.

Many assume that the proposal replaces a mission to the moon with one to Mars, and that such a move makes sense. But, for a start, the moon holds out potential and should not be readily dismissed. Recently, water was discovered on the moon (see  my article, "The spectacular discovery no one is talking about," here).  Furthermore, the proposed approach does not specify a mission to Mars, nor does it set timelines or anything very specific. Research is important, but there also needs to be programs with missions in mind.

During the election campaign, Obama said: “Did John Kennedy look at the moon and say: ‘That looks kind of far away. Let’s be realistic’?” But “be realistic” is essentially Obama’s approach. He has not communicated a vision for the space program; adjustments to spending priorities are no substitute for that. I agree with Christopher Caldwell, who wrote in the FT: “The decision to abandon moon exploration has ‘decline’ written all over it.”

3 Responses to “Obama to NASA: don’t boldly go” Leave a reply ›

  • I'm a close follower of NASA, and even depend on some of its largess, having just been a recipient of one of its Centennial Challenges (power beaming). One thing that NASA has been particularly awful at since Apollo is manned space flight. I strongly believe that the new direction it is taking puts its resources where it is strongest, basic space research. The vast majority of NASA's manned space flight programs appear to be merely pork for politicians, and politicians are lousy rocket scientists. Humans are on the threshold of making tons of money from space, now is the time for government to play a supporting role rather than a leading role.

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