When president-elect Barack Obama takes office in January, he will be faced with a rare situation. Within his first 100 days, he will have to decide the fate of America’s space program.
While other presidents have had the luxury of putting off major decisions on NASA, the Obama administration has a deadline. By April 30, 2009, the new president must decide whether to shut down the Space Shuttle program–currently the United States’ only way to get humans into space and to service the International Space Station (ISS)–or extend the program at no small cost. While the current administration has signed an authorization bill to keep the Space Shuttle flying until the end of 2010, the legislation only prevents NASA management from mothballing Shuttle-related programs until the end of April 2009.
Delaying the choice any further would be expensive, experts say, since resurrecting shut-down production lines and purchasing phase-out parts would dramatically increase costs. “Once you start shutting down things related to the Shuttle program–the vendors and everything else–it becomes much more costly to restart the process,” says Ross Bell, public-policy analyst with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).
Every month that the Shuttle remains in operation diverts funds from NASA’s mandate to create the next generation of U.S. launch vehicles: the Ares rockets and the Orion crew exploration vehicle (CEV). Development of these technologies, known together as the Constellation Program, has been repeatedly delayed due to inadequate funding.
The president-elect–a proponent of spending on education, science, and technology–offers some hope of more investment for the U.S. space program. But he will face pressure to cut costs in the current economic climate and to focus NASA’s budget on environmental monitoring and climate science. Obama’s record offers a few clues to his plans. A year ago, the Obama campaign proposed delaying the Constellation Program by five years to divert the funds to education initiatives. The revelation created such a stir that the campaign backtracked and, two months later, released a more comprehensive space-policy document that offered guarded support for the program.
“As president, Obama will support the development of this vital new platform to ensure that the United States’ reliance on foreign space capabilities is limited to the minimum possible time period,” the document stated. “The [Orion] CEV will be the backbone of future missions, and is being designed with technology that is already proven and available.”
But the first real measure of Obama’s vision for NASA will be his decision on the Shuttle program. This is so critical that the General Accounting Office, a nonpartisan congressional agency that investigates government expenditures, included the conundrum of whether to retire the Space Shuttle on a list of the 13 most urgent issues for the next president beyond the economy and protecting the homeland. That’s because the decision will have ramifications that go far beyond determining a retirement date for the Shuttle fleet.