Thursday, April 15, 2010

Update: President Obama on space

COMMENT: OK, President Obama gave "the NASA speech." And since President Obama is nothing if not a skilled orator, as a speech it was fine.
There were no real surprises, most of the the details having been put out yesterday. Still, there were some interesting things said and some interesting things not said.
The result was kind of a mixed bag, in this space enthusiast's opinion.
The most notable thing the President did NOT say: he never actually committed to continuing the NASA astronaut corps. He talked about putting more astronauts in space but didn't say who they would work for.
One odd thing he did say was, "Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit." He is referring in part to use of a new heavy-lift rocket, but he didn't say who the astronauts would be or what the "systems" would be. He said developing Orion as a rescue vehicle would maintain a technology base for future spacecraft, and there's some, albeit limited, truth in that. His rationale of making us independent of other nations for rescue capability, though, is hardly a compelling rationale for doing anything, let alone spending billions to build exactly ONE capsule. No one made any issue of Soyuz capsules as the emergency return systems from the ISS. The issue was having our people restricted to using Soyuz capsules to get up there in the first place. And how exactly is the Orion rescue vehicle going to get UP to the station? Wait a decade for the new heavy-lift rocket? He didn't say. (And the timetable given for that program - taking until 2015 just to select a design for the rocket - leaves me speechless. That would seem far too long to maintain a viable option of restarting Shuttle tank production and using a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter.)
Finally, I think the President leaned too much on the Augustine Panel as an authority for canceling Project Constellation. That panel did not say Project Constellation was not feasible. They said it wasn't feasible on the current budget: that it would need an extra $3B a year. I never liked the Ares I booster and am not sad to see it die, but there was no mention of man-rating another booster rocket in its place, which could have been used to continue a revamped Constellation program.
The President did give a "shout out," in the current vernacular, to SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster, which will have the unintended effect of putting a lot of government/public/media pressure on SpaceX to make it work the first time. SpaceX's strength is that it, unlike other startups and unlike many government space programs, it progresses in a rational way that tries for success every time but accepts and learns from failures.
The President committed to a $6B increase over the next five years for NASA, which is not bad under the circumstances, and continued commitment to commercial launch providers, which is not in itself any bad thing. He did not, as some expected, commit to any more Shuttle flights, so we will see the end of the Shuttle before the end of this year.
As I said, a mixed bag. I have often argued that space flight is much bigger than just NASA, and NASA is much more than just its human spaceflight program. The increases for robotic missions are welcome. Any move to let the astronaut corps die, though, is never going to get past Congress.
Now Congress has its say. And that is going to be one bruising fight.

REMINDER: As always, but even more so, if that makes any sense: this is solely the personal opinion of the author as a science writer/private citizen/historian.

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