Officials from NASA have been namelessly warning that NASA should expect some radical changes when the president's budget is released on Monday.
In a nutshell: forget the moon, get ready to help commercial
companies develop spaceships to fly people to the space station, which by the way, should be extended to at least 2020, and start working on a heavy-lift rocket needed for future deep-space exploration initiatives.
The plan, though still officially under wraps, already has drawn fire, including this statement from the former NASA administrator, Mike Griffin, who now teaches aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville:
A few presidents have been very supportive of the U.S. space program, and numerous others have been more or less neutral. But only once previously has a U.S. President recommended to the Congress that this nation take a backward step in space. On that occasion, President Nixon cancelled the Apollo program, a decision which in the long light of hindsight I believe will come to be regarded as one of the most significant, yet strategically bankrupt, decisions in human history.
But today, if the rumors we are hearing are true, then we are seeing a second occasion on which a U.S. President has chosen to recommend that the nation abandon its leadership on the space frontier. And, if such a thing is possible, this decision is even worse.
Today we have in orbit a $75 billion dollar International Space Station, a product of the treasure and effort of fifteen nations, and the president is recommending that we hold its future utility and, indeed, its very existence hostage to fortune, hostage to the hope that presently non-existent commercial spaceflight capability can be brought into being in a timely way, following the retirement of the Space Shuttle.
President Nixon's decision to cancel the Apollo program at least left us with the Space Shuttle. President Obama's decision, if it is indeed to be as is rumored today, leaves NASA and the nation with no program, no plan, and no commitment to any human spaceflight program beyond that of today - the last few flights of the Space Shuttle to complete the International Space Station.
Griffin is not the only one firing preemptive strikes. Some members of Congress have been reminding reporters that Congress is in charge of the nation's checkbook. Here are the words of Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, one of two politicians - three if you count John Glenn - who parlayed their interest in space (and their connections) to fly on the space shuttle:
If early reports for what the White House wants to do with NASA are correct, then the president's green-eyeshade-wearing advisors are dead wrong. And I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for NASA, and for the thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs.
Look, our space program is the very reason very we have products like GPS systems, special firefighter equipment, climate change and hurricane satellites, auto airbags, and health care devices such as kidney and heart pumps and Lasik surgery.
NASA also has enabled America to have the most advanced satellite technology for national security purposes.
And it has been NASA that has inspired generations of young Americans to pursue careers in science, technology and engineering – keeping the U.S. a global leader in those fields.
Not everyone is donning battle gear. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an advocacy group for the fledgling space taxi industry, had this to say:
NASA investment in the commercial spaceflight industry is a win-win decision: commercial crew will create thousands of high-tech jobs in the United States, especially in Florida, while reducing the spaceflight gap and preventing us from sending billions to Russia. This is on par with the early days of aviation and the U.S. Airmail Act, which spurred the growth of an entire new industry that now adds billions to the US economy every year.
At a time when job creation is the top priority for our nation, a commercial crew program will create more jobs per dollar because it leverages millions in private investment and taps the potential of systems that serve both government and private customers. We have a tremendous opportunity here to jump-start private activity in low-Earth orbit that will further lower the cost of access to space and unleash the economic potential of space long promised.
Working with NASA, industry can develop the capabilities to safely launch U.S. astronauts just as commercial spaceflight providers are already trusted by the U.S. government right now to launch multi-billion dollar military satellites, upon which the security of our Nation and lives of our troops overseas depend. Investing $6 billion will fund a full program of multiple winners for commercial crew, so that robust competition in the marketplace can reduce costs and generate innovation. We are excited to see such a significant commitment from the Obama Administration and NASA leadership for pursuing this important initiative for NASA and the nation.
Should be an interesting week.
(Mike Griffin, in the shuttle launch control center, may be gone from NASA, but he's still weighing in. Credit: NASA)