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Space Odyssey: Changing Directions for NASA
By Marion C. Blakey
Over the last few years, the previous and current presidential administrations have each offered a vision for NASA and the future of U.S. human spaceflight. Both plans represent a departure from NASA’s human space program of the last three decades, and look beyond low Earth orbit to take a series of steps toward eventual human exploration of Mars.
In January 2004, NASA adopted a Bush administration plan to take humans into a new era of space exploration. The Vision for Space Exploration included finishing the International Space Station (ISS), retiring the aging Space Shuttle fleet, providing commercial opportunities and developing the Constellation program for human exploration of the moon and ultimately Mars.
This February, President Obama proposed a new direction for NASA’s human space exploration program while bolstering many other mission areas.
The plan would cancel the Constellation program and embark on a series of technology development programs meant to significantly increase our technological advancement. NASA would contract services from commercial space launch providers to ferry crew and cargo to the ISS. The plan also extends our nation’s participation through at least 2020 onboard the ISS, which is just beginning to function as a national laboratory.
The changes proposed by President Obama have ignited a heated debate. Proponents of the plan are excited about the new opportunities for the commercial space market, while detractors are concerned that disrupting the current path will leave the United States without the near-term ability to access low Earth orbit and no clear path to the moon and eventually, Mars.
Supporters of the new program are very pleased with the additional funding for NASA. The fiscal 2011 budget increases NASA’s budget $300 million to $19 billion, with an additional increase of $6 billion over the next five years.
Proponents of the new plan argue that the increased reliance on commercial space companies for travel to the ISS would bolster an emerging commercial space industry, provide launch capability to the ISS much sooner and free resources for advanced technology development and missions out of low Earth orbit.
However, opponents point to the fact that the Constellation Program was developed after an extensive exploration systems architecture study that engaged industry, academia and other government agencies in rigorous assessments and reviews of technologies, systems and infrastructure. They worry that the new plan focuses on technology development without clear goals and milestones, leaving the United States without any real space exploration program.
Finally, some are concerned that the commercial space market does not have enough experience to meet the aggressive timetables of the new plan, creating an even larger gap between the retirement of the space shuttle and a U.S. means to access the ISS should this approach fail.
Despite the differing viewpoints within industry, we all agree on several issues. First, sending Americans beyond low Earth orbit and maintaining U.S. leadership in space exploration must be a national priority with clear and achievable milestones supported with a robust budget.
There is also great concern about our nation’s aerospace industry workforce and industrial base. The cancellation of the Constellation program at the same time as the planned retirement of the Space Shuttle will cause residual impacts to the space industrial base and highly-trained space workforce in both private and public sectors. Investments in commercial space will create new opportunities, yet the time it takes to end programs and ramp up new ones will inevitably lead disrupted workers to seek employment elsewhere. Aerospace talent lost to other industries may be unrecoverable; new workers will take years to train.
Finally, it is critical that the government develop a long-term space strategy that addresses both civil and national security space requirements. This strategy should be tied to a stable and appropriate budget, and should take into account what space-related skills and capabilities are needed to achieve future goals.
Ultimately, it is in our nation’s best interest to come together in support of a plan for NASA – one that ensures continued U.S. global leadership, competitiveness and innovation. A well-funded NASA with steady long-range plans not only fuels exploration, scientific discovery and technological development – it is a powerful and peaceful indicator of our global leadership and an inspiration that recruits our country’s next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers.