Discovery Lands: How Obama has squandered our space leadership


List of human spaceflights to the ISS

Launch: 4:53:24 p.m. EST - Feb. 24, 2011 Landing: 11:57:17 a.m. EST - March 9, 2011 Orbiter: Discovery

In May 2010, I went on a fantastic vacation to the “Space Coast” to see the STS-132 shuttle launch in person. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to watch the most second-most complex vehicle ever constructed (besides the International Space Station) rocket into the black of space beyond our blue sky at a rate of over 17,000 miles per hour.  To consider that such an event, which almost seemed routine at this point, was part of the culmination of over 40 years of American effort made my heart swell with pride…the good kind…the kind that makes you happy to be an American.

But it was a bittersweet moment. As you probably were not aware at the time (and might not be still, due to the fact that the media barely pays attention anymore to space exploration…because if it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead), the space shuttle program is being shelved. The Atlantis shuttle I observed that day had just begun what was considered to be its last mission.

Discovery, a few moments ago as I write this, just landed at Kennedy Space Center for the last time.

Endeavor has one more mission, STS-134, and then that’s it. NASA was also able to “shuffle money around” to arrange for STS-135, in which Atlantis will make its encore final performance and then be retired from service.

So, being forward-thinking Americans, you would have to believe we have something ready and waiting in the wings to replace the aging shuttle fleet so we can continue to lead the world in manned spaceflight operations. Right?

You would be wrong to believe that.

From here until probably ten years from now (if we’re lucky), we’ll be catching a Russian Soyuz taxi to the International Space Station, the majority of which was designed, funded, built, and launched with American hardware.

How did this happen?

In February 2009, President Obama proposed a budget that effectively scrapped NASA’s Constellation program, which would have returned American astronauts to the moon in five years.  Reporting varies, but between six and one hundred billion dollars of NASA appropriations, precisely what was needed to fund the development of our next vehicle, was going to be funneled to the private space exploration sector.

That’s great news, right?  Especially for someone who, like me, is both a proponent of manned spaceflight programs AND reducing the size of government programs in favor of private enterprise.

Not so fast. Timing is everything and the timing is still just not right for such a drastic move. Through neglectful prior Congressional appropriations and short-sightedness of our country’s leaders in cancelling the moon programs that vaulted America into dominance of space operations, NASA has been perpetually too severely underfunded to begin a reasonable transition from government funded operations to commercial spaceflight ventures. Indeed a NASA chief tech says it will take a ‘decade’ for us to have a shuttle replacement.

Fantastic.

It’s not that NASA hasn’t tried. Sure, there were periods of reluctance and shortsightedness even on the part of NASA bigwigs and scientists who believed, erroneously, that profit motivations would by definition pollute the scientific and exploratory objectives of their endeavors.  But plenty of for-profit companies operate in other scientific fields and the outcomes of their work have proven that this is not the case. In fact, science-for-profit has been the engine behind the world’s greatest advances of the last 150 years.

What happened was that by the time NASA had figured out that private ventures were valuable, even vital, to the continuation and expansion of manned spaceflight, the Columbia accident had already occurred. Safety became a higher priority than ever, funneling towards self preservation the resources that might have been spent helping commercial ventures build a manned flight safety record and get certified to launch people into space.

By 2008, NASA had begun to regain traction and had set an ambitious protocol to finish the ISS by 2010 and begin developing the shuttle program’s replacement.  President Bush had set forth a vision of going to the Moon, Mars, and beyond with both robotic and manned missions. Things looked challenging, but do-able if leadership continued to have vision and see value in the prospect.

Then Obama, the Blind One when it comes to American exceptionalism, took upon himself to erase that next critical step by defunding Constellation, Orion, and Ares and simply handing money off to the private sector (to which companies and in what manner still isn’t exactly clear, which to me is highly suspicious). That money will not be well spent if the private sector beneficiaries are essentially starting from scratch when they could have been brought on as transition partners for Constellation/Orion/Ares instead.

Insanely, Obama also started a new NASA “Muslim outreach” program. It was promoted in an interview with Al Jazeera, even before it was mentioned to Congress by Administrator (and former astronaut) Charlie Bolden. He said in the interview:

“When I became the NASA administrator — or before I became the NASA administrator — he charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”

Big Shoes & Small Steps

The White House backed his statements up, until the fit hit the shan, at which point, in typical Obama fashion, Bolden was promptly thrown under the bus.

I seriously wonder, though, with all this cultural outreach going on, what will be NASA’s priority when really interesting discoveries happen? 😉 As Dennis Miller quipped, “Muslims will want to go to the moon when the Jews set up Israel there.”

Enter China, stage left. And they’re doing it with the money we owe them as the new majority owners of America’s national debt.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Abolition of Man”, the first chapter entitled “Men Without Chests”,

And all the time−such is the tragi-comedy of our situation−we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

The hearings on the future of human space flight, which I saw a replay of while in Florida after having watched the Atlantis launch, had several poignant and revealing moments, especially with the gravitas of participants such as Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan. See also, House Science and Technology Committee Hearing, May 26th, 2010

Ultimately, though, how are we honoring the legacy of the Challenger and Columbia astronauts by abdicating our newest manifest destiny and handing our superiority in human space flight endeavors over to nations who openly seek our destruction?

I’ll leave you with that thought, and with President Ronald Reagan’s moving speech following the Challenger disaster.

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