Obama's NASA Plan Draws Furious Fire; The Prez Promises to Defend His Vision

By Andrew Moseman | March 10, 2010 4:10 pm

SpaceShuttleTakeoffYou can’t cancel an enormous federal program without hitting pushback, and President Obama is hitting plenty of it over his proposal to end NASA’s Constellation program. In January his budget proposal put forth no funding for Constellation, the space shuttle successor program that included the Ares rockets, Orion crew capsule, and plans to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020. Instead, NASA would become more reliant on private companies to ferry its astronauts to the space station, and would explore new ideas for visiting Mars or nearby asteroids. But the proposal has already ruffled lots of feathers, prompting the President to say he will hold a conference to further outline his plan.

First, many high-profile space experts balked at the proposal. Former astronaut Tom Jones said Obama was surrendering human spaceflight, and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last men to walk on the moon, was equally displeased. “It’s bad for the country,” Schmitt said. “This administration really does not believe in American exceptionalism” [Washington Post]. Dissent wasn’t universal; DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait, for one, praised the possibilities for commercial space-faring.

But even getting the new plan in place will take plenty of political wrangling. Last week reports surfaced saying that NASA chief Charles Bolden and others inside the agency were quietly preparing a Plan B, with compromise options for the members of Congress who have objected to the President’s plan. When the news reports came out, however, Bolden flatly denied them. “The president’s budget for NASA is my budget,” General Bolden said. “I strongly support the priorities and the direction for NASA that he has put forward” [The New York Times].

One of the unhappy members of Congress is Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Hutchison, whose home state is one that stands to lose jobs when NASA’s space shuttle program ends, tried to thwart the Obama plan last week by introducing a bill to extend the shuttle for two more years (It’s currently due to retire this year). The bill, dubbed the Human Space Flight Capability Assurance and Enhancement Act, calls for spending an additional $3.4 billion between 2010 and 2012 to keep the space shuttle flying. It would require NASA to spread out its four remaining shuttle missions, now slated to wrap up by October, and potentially add additional flights [MSNBC]. Yesterday, shuttle program manager John Shannon said it could be done—if the country is willing to spend the money. It currently takes $200 million every month to maintain the shuttles.

Not everyone greeted the President’s proposal with sour grapes. Private space companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for whom the move would mean more opportunities, are understandably excited. “It’s a huge move, and in the face of a lot of congressional opposition,” Musk said when DISCOVER spoke to him for a piece in the upcoming May magazine issue. Constellation, he argues, was never going to to reach it goals. It was already vastly underfunded, and would have required an infusion of cash that Americans would never give, especially in the current economic climate. “The people that are really hardcore against the cancellation of Constellation are people who, either from a political standpoint, have a ton of money being spent in their district and they don’t really care whether this succeeds or not,” he says.

Trying to get back on top in the public relations war, Obama announced this week that he would give a conference on April 15 in Florida to spell out more of his NASA vision. Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, said he hoped Mr. Obama would use the meeting to lay out a goal and a timetable for sending astronauts to Mars [The New York Times]. Nelson, who flew on a space shuttle mission in the 1980s, is a political ally of the President’s, but represents Florida, where so much of NASA’s human spaceflight program is based. The key to political victory for Obama, he says, may be overturning the idea that the end of Constellation equals the end of ambitious manned spaceflight.

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: President Obama’s NASA Budget Unveiled
Bad Astronomy: Give Space a Chance
80beats: Obama’s NASA Budget: So Long, Moon Missions; Hello, Private Spaceflight
80beats: New NASA Rocket May Not Be “Useful,” White House Panel Says
80beats: Presidential Panel: Space Travel Plans Are Broken

Image: NASA

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    What has human spaceflight done for us?

    Nothing, except allow us to wave around our big **** and say how much cooler we are than everyone else.

    Russia gets people and cargo into space way cheaper than we do without current launch system. Why are we spending so many billions devising a COMPLETELY NEW SYSTEM when our current one is okay for giant objects but worthlessly wasteful for everything else?

    We’re not doing anything up there that can’t be done on robots, so it’s basically space tourism for scientists and construction work for PhDs .

    Repairing the Hubble: human necessary, but maybe if we’d sunk all the money wasted on shooting humans up there we could have invented robots to take care of that by now.

    Look how good the Mars rovers did. They were rated for 6 months. How many years did they roll around up there without any help but some creative programming? Why is that seen as a dead end in favor of humans?

    The only thing humans are needed in space for is to test the effects of space on humans over time.

    People need to stop believing in exceptionalism and get on with what other developing countries are doing: hard, cost effective work.

  • Gepinniw

    I couldn’t agree more. Human spaceflight is incredibly inefficient. We could learn so much more, and much faster, with robotic proxies.
    Humans will still be there, up in space, but we will simply experience things through our mechanical avatars. These avatars will be able to venture to places humans could never go.
    We live on a world with finite resources. We need to prioritize.

  • Wil

    If the Constellation program was cut to save money, so money could be diverted to schools, food, or other areas……well, the total NASA budget was actually increased slightly, despite the cancellation of this program.

    The only relevant news I have heard about this is that Obama has directed NASA to divert space resources towards proving the Global Warming theory. I hope we aren’t giving up all future manned space exploration for THAT reason.

    If the real motivation was to transfer R&D of heavy lift vehicles onto private companies (that was not the real reason), then it could have and should have been done in a well thought out, staged, gradual process. Abruptly cutting off all funding with no notice is like throwing your boat’s motor overboard when you are 500 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. It is transparently stupid to the point of being baffling.

  • Rick

    I disagree completely with the Presidents proposal. I find it ironic that he announced the cancellation of the Constellation Program days after the successful launch of the Aries I-X test rocket. Human space exploration is so much more than just national prestige-although that is part of the reason why I support the continuation of the Constellation Program. I doubt very seriously that the safety required for human space flight can be achieved on a par with NASA. Companies such as SpaceX are years away from having the in-house expertise to allow government contracted human space flight. There is a reason why ALL space going nations have government run space programs.

  • http://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com Marcel F. Williams

    Robots can tell you if a human can survive and reproduce under a hypogravity environment such as on the Moon or Mars. Robots can’t tell you if a human can survive in a simulated gravity in a large rotating structure. We spend nearly a trillion dollars a year protecting ourselves from other humans yet we only spend 10 billion a year attempting to find out if we can survive beyond our fragile planet of evolutionary origin.

    Humans are doomed to poverty and extinction if we continue to confine our civilization solely to the Earth!

  • Keith

    Nick, Space is the Final Frontier–and we will go there sooner or later. Human curiosity and adventure are primary motivators. If they were not, no one would have bought a ticket to Star Wars or Star Trek (or even Indiana Jones). I’d prefer sooner, and that takes some government support. It would be nice if all governments could chip in, but we’re not that advanced a civilization yet. In the meantime, yes, let’s spend a few of the dollars that otherwise go to really stupid enterprises, like invading Iraq. Robots are great, too, let’s have even more and better ones. I, for one, would like to see bigger, better telescopes in space and maybe on the Moon. There will be a colony on Mars within 100 years. Thanks.

  • -Ron Noonan

    Of Course! Stop that expensive space flight program that doesn’t bring any benefits! [But, maybe my cell phone wont work anymore, and my gps will screw up, (back to the rod, transit and compass), satellite TV-(wont have a bill), and My tweeting will stop, and Youtube! Oh yes, I will need to drive to DC to search the archives or to do patent search for my inventions, no more internet etc.] Who knows what discoveries we will miss out as “infants of the universe”- This is typical government thinking, when we no longer have any “say so” in government! What is happening to our Country? Where are we heading? Kennedy is rolling over in his grave and the “eternal” flame over his grave is going out!- Ron Noonan- This kind of news really scares me! “Let them eat cake”-rings a familiar bell!-Who is advising our President ?

  • scribbler

    Like it or not, right now, humans have all other robots beaten, dare I say it, hands down…


    And yet there are so very many areas in which robots are and will remain for the foreseeable future, the only way to make certain observations. The key then is to spend the money to send humans to do what they do best and the money on robots to do what they do best. To that end, sending people into low Earth orbit and possibly to the moon very soon are doable and cost effective in the possible gain per dollar area. With present technology, robots are the only realistic medium for everything else.

    As for this particular system, what stuck out to me in the article is that some think this system will never reach our aims for it because of the aparently staggering cost while others believe that even if it could, there are cheaper, better ways to get there.

    If these two things are true, the best thing for now is to patch up the existing system until a better plan is formed, is it not?

    And to establish context, I think this is one of two things “BO” as I call him has done with forethought…


  • Leigh

    @ nick

    What has human space flight done for us?

    Smoke detectors
    the cordless drill
    fogless goggles
    ear thermometer
    handheld video cameras

    among other things. It is not just space travel itself that is of benefit, but several of the items commonly used today are a direct result of NASA and the space program.

  • JDK

    One commenter said, “People need to stop believing in exceptionalism,” but exceptionalism is more than simply doing something bigger, sometimes it is doing more with less. He claims there have been no advancements from space exploration, but this is obviously untrue. We can debate whether these advancements have been worth the costs, but claiming no advancements is both spurious and specious.

    People should always advocate exceptionalism, but what we choose to do it in excludes other worthy choices. I usually disagree with our President, but reducing NASA funding could have real merit.

    Sure, people will end up exploring space, but one has to ask if doing it now has higher net present benefits than delaying when inflation and other factors mean that the same outlay 5 years in the future will actually be cheaper.

    We should approach this logically and not let fear change our deliberations and subsequently the direction we should take.

  • amphiox

    The cancellation of one bloated, under budgeted, politically motivated project, that never had an ice cube’s chance of succeeding anyways without a budgetary increase of at least an order of magnitude, and that would have, even if it worked, taken 20 years to take us back to a place we’ve already been to 40 years ago, does not mean the end of human space exploration.

    It does not even have the faintest of oblique relevance to that issue.

  • amphiox

    Repairing the Hubble: human necessary, but maybe if we’d sunk all the money wasted on shooting humans up there we could have invented robots to take care of that by now.

    Not even necessary. With the same amount of money we could have simply built and launched 10 or maybe even 20 replacement Hubbles, each an improvement on the last, with the old ones still at least partly in working order (so multiple telescopes could have been used in tandem), providing probably at least 100X as much scientific data as the single Hubble has given us, over the same period of time.

  • http://www.spaceprogress.com Andy W

    It’s been estimated that human spaceflight has historically put seven to ten dollars back into the economy for each dollar spent. There is no reason why space science cannot be well funded along with a robust and active human exploration program. Both provide great scientific, technological and national benefits. The budget, as proposed, fails to provide either continuity or a clear framework of goals on the human exploration side. This must and should be corrected. This country spends more on video games and DVDs than it does on human space exploration. If you don’t think that trying to sustain a human crew for years on a fifty million mile trip won’t generate a slate of new technological advancements, then you don’t understand how innovation works. The Bloom Energy Fuel Cell, so much in the news, was a partial offshoot of early NASA research into surviving on Mars by an ex-NASA engineer. It is only when we try to do things that are beyond the practical and necessary can we learn what is truly possible.

  • scribbler

    Technology will advance. To me, that isn’t a question. The main variable will be by how much and at what speed. Certainly, when challenged, we have exceeded all expectations. Are we still as capable today? I think we are…

    Great posts guys! Y’all have the minds that solve such problems as we will face.

    I’m not worried…

  • m

    The president has only a short term to decide changes.. so generally programs are cut whenever they need to be.

    The one and only thing I would like to see from the space program is a realiable vehicle that can fly people to anywhere in the world around the planet. I would concentrate the majority of funding on that until that was reached if i had the power.

    Secondly I would always make sure i was be able to maintain what i had done previously.

    thirdly I would have a country with no debt,100% employment through government jobs.

    The Americans are stupid….the only reason the USA avhieved so much in 1969 is because…there werent Americans behind it.

    Be good if they actually realised this…and i think they are coming around to it slowly.

  • John

    The money we invest in the space program should be invested in wilderness protection.

    I find space exploration fascinating and am astounded by the creative hurdles we’ve overcome in our ventures into space. And yet, while we look for microbes in distant, dusty rocks, incredible and diverse forms of nature are being carelessly wiped out. Biodiversity on Earth is dropping at an alarming rate. Why practice scientific discovery at all if you don’t care whether the natural discoveries are still around in the future?

    Sure, space is the last frontier. But let’s turn our attention to yesterday’s frontiers. The most amazing discoveries we’ve found anywhere in the universe are literally in our backyard.

  • scribbler

    Couldn’t we axe something besides space exploration, John?

  • http://www.freewebs.com/chrisbfla Chris Berman

    When two plus two equal five, you know that something is amiss. Mr. Obama does not believe that private enterprise can accomplish anything. It is evident in heathcare, the auto industry and dozens of other programs that the Obama administration feel are best handled by central government planning…except space exploration. To date, no commercial launch company has put anything into orbit except Sea-Launch and that is funded in the most part by the Government of Ukraine. This is like asking a small boat yard to build teh Queen Mary! This is not workable. Right now we have the discovery of water ice on the Moon, perfect for a lunar colony. We have China with an aggressive military space program telling the world thsy will be on the Moon by 2017. Watch out for that because the Chinese will hold the ultimate high ground. Infact they already plan to orbit two manned military space stations this year. America must remain a first rate space power and not lose our advantage to the Chinese. Domination of the resources of space is the potential next battle ground. This is not something I want to see us come in to in second or third place.

  • Ryan

    I agree with you chris, our nation has come to far to just give up. Our planet is being constantly polluted by “we the people”.If we are going to continue destroying our, we might as well be searching for a new residence. Everyday 14,000 people die a day due to water pollution , its no wonder global warming has become the topic of discussion.@ John I hate to say it but if change doesn’t occur ,”yesterdays frontiers” will be extinct.
    Manned space flight is the essential meaning for the word “exploration”. Did Christopher Columbus need an avatar to sail into the unknown? Its this type of courage that is needed to journey to the unknown as well…. space.

  • http://www.ccgtech.com Tommy Casanova

    NASA is being dismantled so the Obama administration can play out some fantasy that private sector companies like SpaceX are more capable at producing manned spaceflight “cheaper”. These leftist idiots want to walmartize NASA. The walmart business model has destroyed this countries wealth. Our greed has officially killed the middle-class. Systematically, we are being groomed to accept that we live in a global marketplace and will have to relinquish the superpower torch to someone else. I am disheartened and fearful of the future my children are going to have to live in. NASA is an expensive endeavor of human genius and achievement. Children should want to grow up being NASA engineers, scientists and Astronauts. I wanted to be an Astronomer through grade school until realizing they made less than dishwashers. Are you really prepared to hand these careers over to private companies that will see their labor costs as a mere expense that needs to be slashed? There are bus drivers, social workers, corrupt politicians in California that make much more money than most of the engineers and scientists at NASA!! We need to turn our eyes to the enormous size of our local and state governments. DCSF in CA has a 2 Billion budget alone. CPS or DCFS is the most destructive and counter productive of all government agencies. I’d rather deal with the consequences of not having this worthless organization than see even the coffee makers removed from NASA break-rooms!

  • http://www.ccgtech.com Tommy Casanova

    John & Scribbler: We Human beings are the reason the world is losing its biodiversity. Out of all major extinction level events in the history of the world, human beings will ultimately cause the extinction of most life on earth. Human population size and growth is the root cause of all our environmental problems. If there were less people, we would not need to worry about infrastructure growth, habitat invasion, energy needs, etc. However, people have decided they want to continue down this unsustainable path until every life on earth ends in misery. If you want to save baby seals and the spotted owl, I suggest targeting the root cause–human population! We have reached the tipping point and I fear we will only try to make a course correction only after we’ve destroyed everything. Example: China implemented its one child policy only after they had destroyed their country’s environment and could no longer sustain the existing population.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar