As scandals pile up at the White House door, another example of amateurish government mismanagement slid under the radar last week: President Obama’s NASA unveiled its new rocket system designed to lift man into space sometime after 2021 with no clear mission or objective.
This is just the latest in a long string of embarrassments for NASA since Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver took over.
In January 2010, Bolden labeled NASA an “Earth improvement agency” and said it would essentially scrap manned space exploration and concentrate on “researching and monitoring climate change.” This redefined mission came with additional funding. NASA was going to spend more, and do less.
Then in July 2010, Administrator Bolden announced NASA’s mission as threefold: (1) “re-inspire children”; (2) “expand our international relationships”; and “foremost” (3) “reach out to the Muslim world.” He condescendingly explained that Muslim outreach would help Islamic nations “feel good” about their scientific accomplishments.
In this same interview, Bolden “inspired children” by declaring the United States could never reach beyond low-earth orbit again, as it did alone from 1968–1971, without international help, saying: “We’re not going to go anywhere beyond low earth orbit as a single entity. The United States can’t do it, China can’t do it — no single nation is going to go to a place like Mars alone.”
In March 2011, Russia raised the price of Americans flying on their Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station by more than 20 percent, to roughly $63 million a trip. With no near-term alternative, the United States is in no position to negotiate a better deal for taxpayers.
Then last month, a Soyuz rocket crashed in Siberia, and threatened to force an evacuation of the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS) by December. The reliance on Russia’s spacecraft means a certain end to ISS activity if the Soyuz cannot fly. For now, Russia has scheduled a manned flight in November, temporarily alleviating those concerns.
After all of this confusion over NASA’s mission and future, Bolden introduced a manned-space-exploration plan that is bewildering and lacks credibility.
#more# The new Space Launch System (SLS) replaces the former Constellation program. Constellation was a two-vehicle system designed to carry a crew atop an Ares I rocket and carry heavy-lift cargo in an Ares V rocket. SLS is also a two-vehicle system with a nearly identical heavy-lift rocket, and a redesigned crew vehicle that resembles the Ares IV first seen in 2007.
Since this system so closely resembles its predecessors, Constellation’s purpose apparently wasn’t as misguided as the president has implied for the past two-plus years,.
However, under Constellation, the first manned test flight was scheduled for 2015, with a crew mission later that year, a cargo flight by 2018, and a man back on the moon conducting experiments for later flights to Mars by 2019.
Under the new Obama SLS system, the first unmanned test flight is in 2017, the first manned test is in 2021, and a possible mission to an asteroid is scheduled for 2025. The “gap” of America’s ability to put man into space grew from four years under President Bush to ten years under President Obama.
Obama and Bolden added at least six years to both the manned flight and mission schedules in exchange for what? A possible asteroid as the first stop instead of the moon?
Rep. Bill Posey (R., Texas) said of the new SLS plan: “[T]here is still a lack of vision, and no clear mission.”
Then, earlier this month, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas) and Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) accused Obama of attempting to “sabotage” his own program by “inflating cost estimates.” Days later, the cost numbers apparently added up when NASA lowered their estimates.
This is not a good start to a decades-long space program. Either it’s too costly, which is surely exacerbated by the past two years of dithering and ‘brain-drain,’ or it isn’t. We need a clear cost assessment, and President Obama should clarify whether or not he supports his own space program.
To satisfy those who believe NASA’s core mission is, and always has been, space exploration, this new program seems to be reluctantly pieced together, mostly out of programs that sat in a purposeful state of disorder for nearly three years.
NASA has a long history of innovation and brilliant achievement. The men and women of that agency, along with U.S. taxpayers, are ill-served by this administration’s careless handling of its future.
— Rory Cooper was appointed as NASA’s first Director of Outreach and Intergovernmental Affairs in 2006 and is currently Director of Communications at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper.