In which I kinda, sorta, defend the President.
Now pick yourself up off the floor.
Obama caught a lot of grief from conservatives over the decision to end the space shuttle program, when in reality this decision was made (correctly) by George W. Bush in 2007. Once enacted, it couldn’t be easily undone – supply chains and tooling were pretty much gone no matter what the Big O might have wanted.
The difference is that W had also directed NASA to develop a cheaper manned space capability that was supposed to be flying, well, this year.
Not seeing anything out there that looks like a new NASA vehicle? Nope, me neither. And that’s where the criticism comes from: along with the shuttles, Obama deep-sixed Constellation, which was Bush’s follow-on program. More accurately, it was the hobby horse of Bush’s NASA Administrator Mike Griffin – who literally wrote the book on spacecraft design – and was described as “Apollo on steroids.”
Which it was, sadly. Though a stupendous achievement and a source of great national pride to this day, Apollo was also a money sink that corrupted the thinking of an entire generation as to “how we do space.”
Constellation was deeply flawed and could only be fixed with a money injection that simply wasn’t going to happen. An independent review board composed of former aerospace execs and NASA astronauts determined that even if the whole program was dropped in their laps, fully developed and ready to go, that they still couldn’t afford to operate it. And in the meantime, Griffin was still diverting funding from other programs within the agency to prop up his personal favorite.
So yes, Obama was right to can it. He was also right to direct NASA to contract out their access to low-Earth orbit. In other words, as I’ve always preached: getting to and from orbit is well enough understood that it’s past time to let the private sector take over (while driving costs down, to boot). Let NASA save that money to buy rides into low orbit so they can develop the technology to routinely go beyond it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to afford a ticket. Maybe not. But it was never going to happen by doing it the NASA way.
Others have surmised the Prez did it because he doesn’t understand either spaceflight (most pols don’t) or the private sector (too many pols don’t; he’s just the worst example). It’s really the only substantially pro-free market decision he’s made, so “why” doesn’t really matter. It was the right call and he deserves credit for it.
So it pains me to see ostensibly “conservative” politicians trying to tar him with it – because if Obama’s for it, they’re agin’ it I suppose. While stubbornly refusing to accept the likes of SpaceX or Blue Origin, they still insist on throwing money down a hole to mandate that NASA build another big-@$$ rocket. While a new Saturn V-class launcher would be cool as heck to see, we don’t really need it. It would make a lot more sense to use smaller Atlas and Delta heavies with more launches and develop some kind of propellant depot capability in orbit. Given our experience in orbital rendezvous and construction, it’s hard to see how that’s not doable.
Fortunately, there are voices of reason on the (R) side who see things as they are. Here’s Dana Rorabacher (R-CA):
The bottom line is, in order to have steady funding, we’re going to have to defund every other space project that we have! Nobody here wants to face that! Maybe if we’re going to provide safety, maybe if we’re going to provide reliability and do this professionally, maybe we should set our goals to something we can actually accomplish within the budgets that are possible, without destroying every other aspect of the space program. I think that’s what’s happening here today. That’s what we’re really discussing.
I’m pretty sure SpaceX is in his district, so don’t discount the fact that he’s just advocating for the local gentry. That’s what congresscritters do. Fortunately, he’s on the right side of this debate.
In the larger picture, I’ve met a few politicians here & there and am convinced that most of them are just clueless. Maybe 10% are the real thinkers and visionaries, while the rest are followers who parrot the party line. They may more or less believe in their party’s platform, but for the most part are just along for the ride and know how to make people like them.