Friday, July 9, 2010
Senate Panel Works to Block Obama's Human Spaceflight Proposal
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is working on a bill to block much of President Obama's proposed plan for the future of human spaceflight at NASA. The bill is expected to restore the Orion capsule to its original specifications, authorize the construction of a heavy-lift rocket starting immediately, and will call for one additional shuttle flight, to be flown in the middle of next year. The panel hopes to garner bipartisan support for the bill (as there has been some bipartisan opposition to the President's plan).
I've been somewhat ambivalent about the administration's vision for human spaceflight, so I'm not terribly troubled by any of the developments we've seen on this front. But the most striking feature of the President's plan, to me, has been the emphasis on bringing down costs. Integrating the private sector into orbital missions may be an important step toward greater commercial participation in human spaceflight, but at its heart I think it's mainly about saving money. There's a certain accountability in commercial endeavors that is sometimes unfortunately absent in government projects, so if this route managed to reduce the enormous cost of sending astronauts into space, that would be a boon for the space program as a whole.
Incidentally, I would be all in favor of the senate's plan if they can give the program the money it really needs. In 2005, President Bush set the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon, but the additional funding that Constellation needed was never made available. When President Obama took over, the advisory panel he assembled found that the program was dreadfully underfunded and would never reach its goals in time (a return to the Moon was not realistic until at least 2025, they said). He could either fight for the additional billions of dollars, or revise the program's objectives (he's actually doing a little bit of both).
While I think the President's proposal is a novel one, I understand the apprehension, and there are certainly drawbacks. But if Congress wants to derail his plans, they better think seriously about ponying up to make sure Constellation gets off the ground on schedule. The status quo is just not acceptable.