The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Repealing the Moon

While Understandably Disappointing to Some, Obama Makes the Right Call on Manned Space Exploration

President Obama’s recently announced plan and budget for NASA contains all sorts of goodies for space enthusiasts – nearly $1 billion more in 2011 than what the agency expects to spend in 2010; pledged extra funding to extend the life of the International Space Station through at least 2020; $170 million to replace the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which was destroyed during a launch failure last year; $3.2 billion for science research grants and missions, including a potential successor to the Hubble Space Telescope; $146 million to support education and public outreach.

For critics, however, the only thing that mattered was Obama’s decision to scrap the Constellation program, with $9 billion already invested, and, along with it, a return to the moon by the U.S. in the next five years, as proposed by former President Bush. Instead, Obama opted for an alternative, known as the “flexible path,” that involves developing technologies for trips beyond Earth orbit but without any definite destinations or timelines.

Obama is not without vision in this area. He predicted the U.S. would develop a rocket capable of going beyond the moon by 2025, land on an asteroid, and send a manned mission into Martian orbit in the mid-2030s. Obama said he firmly believed he would see men land on Mars in his lifetime. His critics predicted the end of our return to the moon was pretty much the end of the world.

The immediate concern is that cancellation of Constellation could lead to potentially thousands of layoffs in the aerospace industry and ravage states that have traditionally been home to major NASA efforts, such as Florida and Texas. However, critics have been quick to stress larger, long-term effects, which they say include weakening national security and America’s prestige as a leader in space.

“This is a crippling blow to America’s human spaceflight program,” declared Republican Representative Pete Olson of Texas. This point of view gained traction when former astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, added his voice to those objecting. Armstrong joined other Apollo era space veterans and former NASA officials in an open letter to the President.

“For the United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second-rate or even third-rate stature.”

The decision to scrap Constellation came after an independent review, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, found the program was so over budget and behind schedule that it would probably never meet all of its objectives.

Obama insists the predicted job losses will not happen. In fact, Obama said his plan would add twenty-five hundred more than jobs to the Cape Canaveral region over the next two years than the Bush plan would have done. He also touted the promise of creating more than ten thousand jobs nationwide in the future by transitioning development of new space technologies to the private sector, using $6 billion from the federal government over the next five years as seed money.

“Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, the human exploration of space, than I am. But we've got to do it in a smart way; we can't keep doing the same old things as before . . . We will actually reach space faster and more often under this new plan, in ways that will help us improve our technological capacity and lower our costs.”

Current NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, is enthusiastic. “It enables us to draw more strongly on the ingenuity of the commercial sector and create deeper ties with our international partners,” he told reporters.

“It was widely felt [inside and outside NASA] that Constellation was like an unguided missile, ignoring changing circumstances and blindly pushing ahead . . . There are cleverer and better strategies to achieve the same goals,” agrees James Oberg, a former NASA mission controller.

“It is time to get NASA out of driving trucks and back to exploring,” asserts Rick Tumlinson, author of Return to the Moon. “I want them to move on and let the rest of us follow to build new places for humans to live and work, creating new wealth and new hope for future generations . . . This new policy addresses the reasons we weren't able to hold and expand our beachhead on the moon once this feat was accomplished and why, forty plus years later, some of our children believe we never went.”

Although reaction to Obama’s decision among space insiders often split along generational lines, Armstrong’s lunar mission companion, Buzz Aldrin, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “I think [Obama] made the right call. If we follow the President's plan, our next destination in space, Mars, will be within our reach.”

Yet the critics are adamant the private sector cannot successful take on this role from the federal government. “The President’s announcement, unfortunately, will do nothing to ensure America’s superiority in human space exploration or to decrease our reliance on [other nations] in the interim,” warned Republican Representative Ralph Hall of Texas, the ranking GOP member of the House Science and Technology Committee. Hall promised to propose legislation that would essentially keep Constellation’s Ares rocket program alive at the expense of emerging commercial launch ventures.

This is interesting talk from a man whose Party insists we cannot afford recently passed healthcare reform legislation. Those who say we lack the money in tough economic times to ensure all Americans have insurance seem to feel price is no object when it comes to the patriotic thrill of watching our astronauts bound across the lunar surface or tee up an extraterrestrial golf drive.

I thought Obama’s slow but thoughtful decision-making about troop increases in Afghanistan beat fist-waving whoops of “Bring ‘em on!” Likewise, his more recent decision to balance additional investment in fossil fuels to augment development of alternative “green” energy struck me as superior to shrill cries of “Drill, baby, drill!” In much the same manner, I see Obama’s decision regarding manned space exploration as far more reasonable and practical than the critic’s slippery slope argument that we cannot lead unless we dominate completely.

When choosing the best and most important ways to use government versus when to default to the private sector, I think Obama has his priorities absolutely correct when comparing healthcare to space. The current catchphrase is calling on Congress to "Repeal the bill!" I support repleaing the moon instead. On this, the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, let us undertake to do something more direct toward the welfare of this planet – not to mention our country and its inhabitants – than taking awesome photos of it from lunar orbit.

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