Retreat from the New Frontier

February 12th, 2010

By Tom Carter

President Obama’s decision to end U.S. manned space flight programs for the next decade or two is one of the most disappointing things he’s done so far.  By killing the Constellation program, troubled as it may have been, the President has put the U.S. in the position of relying on Russia and maybe China to launch astronauts into space. 

The Russians, of course, never missing an opportunity, want to substantially increase the prices they charge for flying U.S. astronauts.  In fact, the cost is already higher than the prices they have charged rich tourists for rides into space.

The Administration has the nutty idea that manned space flight can be turned over to the commercial sector.  That’s nothing more than an empty alternative, given the costs and the scale of developing and maintaining a reliable capability to regularly launch and recover astronauts. 

I’ve been stewing about this since I first read about the decision to abandon the Constellation program.  I’ve tried to find an upside to it, but I can’t.  Neither can Charles Krauthammer, who wrote today:

By the end of this year, there will be no shuttle, no U.S. manned space program, no way for us to get into space. We’re not talking about Mars or the moon here. We’re talking about low-Earth orbit, which the United States has dominated for nearly half a century and from which it is now retiring with nary a whimper.

Our absence from low-Earth orbit was meant to last a few years, the interval between the retirement of the fatally fragile space shuttle and its replacement with the Constellation program (Ares booster, Orion capsule, Altair lunar lander) to take astronauts more cheaply and safely back to space.

But the Obama 2011 budget kills Constellation. Instead, we shall have nothing. For the first time since John Glenn flew in 1962, the United States will have no access of its own for humans into space — and no prospect of getting there in the foreseeable future.

Of all the things that demonstrated and symbolized the U.S. leadership role in the world, the space program — and the triumphs of manned space flight in particular — is at the top of the list.  As Krauthammer notes, the differences between the beginning and the end are stark:

When John F. Kennedy pledged to go to the moon, he meant it. He had an intense personal commitment to the enterprise. He delivered speeches remembered to this day. He dedicated astronomical sums to make it happen. …

Obama’s NASA budget perfectly captures the difference in spirit between Kennedy’s liberalism and Obama’s. Kennedy’s was an expansive, bold, outward-looking summons. Obama’s is a constricted, inward-looking call to retreat.

Fifty years ago, Kennedy opened the New Frontier. Obama has just shut it.

What a shame.

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4 Responses to “Retreat from the New Frontier”

  1. Lisa |

    Tom, I agree with you and Charles Krauthammer that President Obama’s decision to end the U.S. manned space flight program is a historical moment that truly symbolizes the end of our country’s leadership and reign in this arena. We deserve to know precisely how this new NASA budget will advance us technologically to further our goals in space. Is future space travel a reality or just Obama’s version of hope and change?

  2. Brian Bagent |

    Any thoughts on how the federal government will respond if Raytheon, McDonnell Douglas, or any of the rest can make a successful commercial go of things?

  3. Brianna |

    Basically what happened is that the NASA budget increased, the science stuff got more money… but the manned work got scrapped. What’s even worse in a way than the actual loss of the program is the fact that the infrastructure and people the program was based on are going to get scrapped/dispersed. The first is incredibly expensive to replace. The second is even more expensive than the first, and there are some things that will never be replaced because the people who knew them are just gone.

    As for commercial space… I think it would be able to meet the need eventually. I don’t think that “eventually” will be coming any time soon.

  4. Tom |

    Brian, I don’t have any problem in principle with a commercial service that could replace the government in providing manned space flight and other services in space. In fact, some of that already exists in such areas as development and operation of communications satellites. So far these satellites have been launched by NASA or other national space agencies, but it’s not too great a leap to imagine a private company providing regular launch services. For example, SpaceX has launched a commercial satellite and has a space services contract with NASA.

    However, there are astronomical costs involved in developing, building, and testing vehicles; maintaining launch facility bases; owning and operating tracking stations; maintaining and operating vehicles on orbit or in transit; and running a regular, reliable, and safe manned space flight service. In order for all that to happen, the most significant customer of the commercial enterprise would have to be the government. To the extent that private users (including “space tourists”) could use these services, they likely couldn’t pay the real cost, and government payments would end up subsidizing their activities.

    I think it’s going to be a very long time before we can even think about a commercial entity owning and running something comparable to the shuttle program or the Constellation program. And even if that ever happens, the government is going to pay virtually all of the cost through user fees and in-kind support. So what will happen is the government will still pay, with the addition of the profits that private companies will make in providing manned space flight capabilities. That’s not likely to be the best way to use taxpayers’ money.

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