TR: How does the White House’s proposed plan affect the U.S. on the international stage?
SP: I think the phrase is that the Russians are very happy. They see us as being reliant on them for quite a while, and we pay about $50 million a seat when we fly one of our guys on the Soyuz. There has been a long, three-year effort as part of a global exploration strategy to corral the 14 major space agencies to work together on lunar robotic and human exploration, and Mars sample return [missions]. Those were sort of the two initiatives within the global exploration strategy. The Europeans have been focused on Mars, the Americans on lunar exploration, and a lot of other countries on robotic missions. It is unclear what the U.S. international strategy is going to be, so if it is uncertain what the architecture is going to be, it is uncertain how we are going to cooperate with our international partners.
There are all these statements that we want to cooperate more. That’s great, but what do we bring to the party? If we are not bringing the Orion capsule, for example, or a launch system, or lunar lander, what is it that we are doing? Other countries have launch vehicles and perfectly good science programs, but human spaceflight was a skill set that was uniquely ours, and shared only with the Russians, and recently the Chinese. If we are going to be a leader in human space exploration, what is it we are going to be contributing? That is also unclear, and until we sort this out, at least in the short term, we will be less influential in the international manned space community.
TR: How much resistance will there be in Congress to the proposed budget, and do you think there will be any significant changes?
SP: Historically NASA gets whatever the president requests within a few hundred million dollars. Congress typically does not add or subtract a billion dollars. The real question is what the composition of that will be. Will all that technology money and commercial money survive, or will some of it be redirected toward some government effort? Whether it’s Constellation or not, I do not know, but the Congress voted twice on a bipartisan basis in both houses to support the Vision for Space Exploration and the Constellation program architecture. Since they have provided that support, if you ask them to do something different, they are going to have to be convinced.
The Obama administration is going to have to make its case as to why its approach is a better one, and they really have not had to make that case yet. I am sure they will, but they have not yet.
TR: One congressional member said that his biggest fear was that this could amount to a slow death of the nation’s human spaceflight program. Do you share that concern?
SP: That is certainly a possibility–it is not a guarantee, but it certainly is a risk. If the commercial or technical stuff does not happen on time, if the lack of a defined plan erodes political support, if the space station program ends and there is nothing going beyond that and no market for some of these commercial launchers, the U.S. is out of the human spaceflight game. It is also possible that commercial spaceflight will succeed and there will be a strong and viable space tourism market, separate from the government, and I think that would be great. But [slow death] is a risk that we are being exposed to now.