[/caption]There’s no denying it, President-elect Barack Obama will have one of the toughest jobs in presidential history. The challenges the 44th President of the United States will face are deep and varied. Everything from the economy to housing, from health care to warfare, from energy to security; everything appears to be in a state of “crisis”. So, of the incoming administration’s priorities, getting man back to the Moon is low on the list. Unfortunately, the exploration of space is often viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity, policy changes interfere with long-term projects, and the NASA budget can become an easy target for cutbacks.
It will come as no surprise then, that news is surfacing about some friction between Obama’s new administration and the existing top brass in NASA. Some reports point to direct non-cooperation by NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, an allegation that both NASA and the Obama transition team deny. Regardless, there is tension building, especially when it is becoming clear that the transition team may be eyeing up NASA budget cuts, postponing the Constellation program, possibly putting long-term US manned access to space at serious risk.
A space exploration crisis is on the horizon, but what damage would it cause?
Writing about NASA’s endeavours in space can be a frustrating experience. On the one hand, the US space agency is responsible for mankind’s biggest space-faring achievements. NASA has always led and the world has followed. NASA pushes back the frontiers of manned and robotic exploration, and now the agency’s expertise is being passed down to commercial spaceflight companies (such as SpaceX support through COTS contracts) to fill in the void behind NASA’s advances.
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We are reaching an age where other nations are investing in space exploration too. The European Space Agency (ESA) is rapidly growing, Russia has one of the most robust launch systems on the planet, China is making huge leaps in manned spaceflight, India has sent a probe to the Moon; the list is growing by the month. Therefore, the US is beginning to feel competition from the international community, and although the US won’t be toppled as #1 in space any time soon, what about a decade from now? Will the playing field turn against NASA’s dominance in Earth orbit and beyond? Fortunately the US has close collaborative ties with ESA and Russia, but what happens if this situation changes?
NASA recently extended their use of the Russian Soyuz vehicle to fill in US manned access to space during the “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning in 2010 and (proposed) Constellation launch in 2015. Although it is reassuring to know astronauts will still be able to fly with cosmonauts to-and-from the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2010, what happens if relations between the US and Russia chill even further (the South Ossetia conflict is a prime example of how the politics between the two nations can freeze solid)? The Russian government could very quickly pull the plug on US manned access to space.
And so, all eyes on US space companies accelerating their development of alternative means of transportation. Elon Musk’s SpaceX for example, is a front-runner when it comes to commercial manned spaceflight. In a recent interview I conducted with SpaceX, Diane Murphy (Vice-President of Marketing and Communications) was very optimistic about SpaceX’s Dragon module providing the answer to manned spaceflight. “I think we’ll surprise them [NASA] with how quickly we are moving so they can use us for crew as well. We’ll be ready!” she told me. Judging by the speed at which the company is developing, it certainly seems to be a possibility.
But, for now, we are stuck in an awkward position. NASA gets a minuscule budget when compared with other government departments. The US government has underfunded the agency for many years, and the funds it does receive are constantly open to erosion by changing administrations and space policy. Now Barack Obama’s administration must balance the needs of NASA with the worsening financial crisis hitting the world, so a transition team has been sent to look into NASA business to understand where work needs to be done.
Now it seems as if tensions are coming to a head. According to reports in the Orlando Sentinel, Michael Griffin, who was attending a book launch with members of the Obama transition team (including ex-NASA senior administrator Lori Garver), accused Garver as being “unqualified” to be assessing whether funds should be cut from the development of the Constellation Program. According to witnesses at the book launch, Garver tried to reason with Griffin saying, “Mike, I don’t understand what the problem is. We are just trying to look under the hood.”
Griffin apparently disliked this assertion and said, “If you are looking under the hood, then you are calling me a liar. Because it means you don’t trust what I say is under the hood.”
Associates who attended the book launch said the exchange between Griffin and Garver was not an argument, it was simply “a discussion about stuff.” Still, whatever tone the discussion was pitched at, there seem to be problems brewing. To calm rumours that he was not cooperating, Griffin wrote an email to NASA employees saying, “This report, largely supported by anonymous sources and hearsay, is simply wrong. We are fully cooperating with the [transition] team members.”
This could be the symptom of recent accusations by Alan Stern, ex-NASA Associate Administrator for Science, that there was a “cancer” in the administration’s management structure. According to Stern, the result of this “cancer” is zero-accountability for project budget overspending and wasteful practices. His words came when NASA announced it would be removing a sample storage box from the Mars Science Laboratory after it had been developed and constructed (thereby throwing away $2 million), then followed by an announcement about a two year postponement of the mission. Needless to say, Stern is highly critical of the mission, prompting him to say that the “Mars Program is slowly committing suicide before our very eyes.”
Putting government underfunding, and alleged NASA mismanagement to one side, it appears to be a continuing misconception that the exploration of space (whether it be manned or robotic) is an academic endeavour. Personally, I’d argue that manned exploration of space is essential for the long-term survival of our species, but politics only thinks about the next four-year term in office. Although politics is a fantastic motivator for space exploration in some cases (cue: Apollo Program during the Cold War in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s) to fulfil short-term goals, during periods of social and economic upheaval, space exploration becomes an unnecessary luxury and policies become a lot more introverted.
To finish off, let’s look at the European Space Agency. Although ESA is a completely different entity from NASA–it is not politically-driven (although some leaders want it to be), it is a consortium of many nations and its budget is smaller than NASA’s–its outlook for Europe’s efforts in space are far more optimistic. Rather than trying to cut funding to save money, ESA appears to have a renewed vigour toward using space exploration as a means to stimulate the economy:
These decisions have particular relevance at the present time, showing as they do Europe’s determination to invest in space as a key sector providing for innovation, economic growth, strategic independence and the preparation of the future. – ESA press release
To avoid any regrets in space policy, the upcoming US administration needs to look hard at ESA’s motivation. Investment in space provides independence, economic growth and preparation for the future. Alas, by making cutbacks to the Constellation Program, the US will start depending on Russia for manned access to space (if a commercial alternative isn’t available in time), economic influence of a manned space program will be cancelled out, and as for the future? Well, we’ll just have to hope for the best.