NASA and Obama's budget: the politics and ideals of human space exploration

Negative reaction to the president's initial plan for NASA has forced him to backpedal a bit and offer a schedule for human spaceflights to Mars and an asteroid. He now needs to work more closely with Congress to set long-term, deep-space missions.

Human travel to Mars is now back on America’s space agenda.

It is just one of many course-corrections that President Obama will likely be forced to make to his January proposals for big changes at NASA.

Too many Americans and lawmakers reacted negatively to the initial White House plan for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They still see human exploration to specific destinations in space as a compelling frontier – not just for the nation but humanity, too. They weren’t ready to live only vague promises of deep-space missions, as Mr. Obama made. Nor do they want the space agency more focused on earthly tasks such as climate-change monitoring, as Obama would prefer, over scientific discovery in outer space.

The public reaction pushed the president on Thursday to set a timetable for the first Mars trip – by the mid-2030s – as well as a schedule to land on an asteroid (near 2025). He also had to set 2015 for starting construction of a heavy-lift launcher based on new innovative technology.

But Obama only partially backed down on his proposal to cancel a Bush-era program called Constellation. That project, now over budget, would return Americans to the moon to do more research and to tap that body’s frozen water for making fuel for lunar launches to Mars and beyond. While he still wants to stop production of the Ares rockets for the moon mission, Obama did backpedal a bit by offering to keep the planned Orion crew-ship – but only as an emergency vehicle to escape the International Space Station.

Even Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon, opposes an end to the moon project, partly because other nations, especially China, are gearing up to land there in the years ahead. America’s leadership in space would be in jeopardy.

The political battle over funding the moon project will play out in Congress over coming months. Some compromise may be possible. This debate will likely have little of the polarizing partisan tones of other issues on Capitol Hill. Rather, it pits key political states with many space-related jobs – Florida, Texas, California, and Colorado – against other states.

To his credit, the president would raise NASA’s overall budget by about $6 billion over five years – despite his call for cuts during his 2008 campaign. And he wants to support the fledgling private space agency to take over many of the government’s goals for low-orbit projects, such as reaching the space station. He also would extend the space station’s life by four years.

Finding a political middle that can support NASA’s program through many presidencies would be Obama’s biggest legacy in space. The agency and the private contractors can keep suffering financial whiplash every few years, as they did once again when Obama laid out his goals last January.

One of those potential middle positions was articulated well by Obama on Thursday: “Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time.”

The president erred by not working more closely with Congress before setting forth his budget plan for NASA. He also may be counting too much on the commercial space-launch industry to mature soon enough to take over key NASA functions and fill the gap – to be temporarily filled by Russian rockets – caused by the end of the space shuttle program this fall.

He’s on course, however, when he clearly lines himself up with America’s strong tradition in spaceflight, as he did Thursday in speaking at the Kennedy Space Center:

“Space exploration is not a luxury, not an afterthought in America’s brighter future, [but] an essential part of that quest.... For pennies on the dollar, the space program has improved our lives, advanced our society, strengthened our economy, and inspired generations.”

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