Why Obama rejected John Glenn's plea to save the space shuttle progam
In a 40-minute plea at the White House to save the US space shuttle, John Glenn said that relying on the Russians to get US astronauts into space was a mistake. Why did President Obama turn him down?
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Some close to the space program have an even bigger worry—that the era of American preeminence in space is nearing an end. In shuttering the shuttle, the U.S. will lose the capacity to launch humans into space for several years, possibly as long as a decade. In the meantime, American astronauts will have to hitch rides with Russians, paying around $60 million for each trip aboard the Russian Soyuz capsule.Skip to next paragraph
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John Glenn, the space pioneer and former Democratic senator, was so bothered by the prospect of a space gap that he personally pleaded with Obama last year to keep the shuttle program going until a replacement system was ready. After listening to Glenn’s appeal in a 40-minute meeting at the White House, the president said, “We just don’t have the money to do it,” Glenn recalls. He says he worries that, once the U.S. is a fully dependent space client, Russia will use its advantage to up the price. “I think it was very short-sighted,” Glenn says. “We’re throwing away the shuttle, which is the most complex vehicle ever put together by human beings. We’re saying that we’re putting complete reliance on the Soyuz, at enormous expense, to get our people back and forth from space. And you know, good and well, when they renegotiate that the next time around, it’s going to be a lot more money.”
Giffords also had been forcefully voicing that view. During her sophomore term in Congress, in 2007-08, she chaired an important space subcommittee and became one of the strongest advocates of a robust American human space exploration program. In 2010, she wrote that the space gap “forces the United States to rely on the same Soyuz spacecraft that raced our Aplollo astronauts to the moon and lost. It condemns us to a future of paying Russia for this service, so Russia can pursue its exploration goals.”
The space gap was actually set in motion by President George W. Bush, who, after the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, dramatically reoriented the American space program away from the shuttle and space station and toward a renewed human exploration of deeper space. His administration launched a program called Constellation, which would take Americans back to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Giffords was a fan of that program (Mark Kelly helped to design the capsule that would land on the moon), but Obama decidedly was not. (“We’ve been there before,” he said of the moon project.) Constellation wasn’t helped by the fact that it was underfunded, which put it behind schedule and in turn drove up costs.
When Obama became president, he ordered a full review of the space program. He kept with Bush’s cancellation of the shuttle (extending it by two missions, including Endeavour’s), but decided to kill the follow-on Constellation program, salvaging a version of the landing capsule, Orion (to be used as a space station escape vehicle). The money saved will be spent on fostering commercial efforts to fly American astronauts to the space station, and on the development of a future system meant to take Americans to an asteroid by 2025.
To Obama’s most pointed critics, this policy reflects an ideological bias. “Whatever you thought about what we had, they replaced it with nothing,” says Michael Griffin, Bush’s NASA chief. “This is an administration that believes the United States is too prominent, to prepossessing, too dominant in the world. The human space flight program was the archetype of exactly what the current administration in its philosophy dislikes about America’s position in the world, and they want it to go away.”