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Obama's NASA Dilemma

The fate of the U.S. space program hangs in the balance.

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.

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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.

Shuttle vs. Constellation: The trade-off between funding the Space Shuttle flights and supporting the Constellation Program is illustrated by this graph of NASA’s estimated budget.

Requests for an interview on the topic sent to both the Obama campaign and president-elect Obama’s Change.gov website were not answered.

Because of the funding shortfalls, instead of an overlap between the Shuttle’s missions to complete the ISS and the first Constellation launches–as originally called for in the Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration–the United States now faces a gap of five years between the planned retirement of the expensive-to-operate Space Shuttle and the expensive-to-develop Constellation Program. Current estimates are that the Constellation Program will not fly earlier than 2015, leaving U.S. astronauts and cargo to hitch rides on other nations’ rockets. Moreover, some experts believe that the delay will be longer.

“The current timescale is unrealistic, and putting it out there has made it more unrealistic because it has created budget tensions,” says Louis Friedman, executive director for the Planetary Society, which last week released its own recommendations for space exploration. The society’s report, titled “Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century,” calls for the Obama administration to retire the Space Shuttle on time and focus on creating a new transportation infrastructure to carry humans to destinations beyond the Moon before landing on the Moon itself. The United States would have to find rides into space on other nations’ rockets to bridge the gap.

The plan, which is the result of an earlier meeting of more than four dozen space experts, focuses on moving past what has already been done. Rather than landing on the Moon to replicate what has already been achieved, the Roadmap calls for the United States to escape the Earth-Moon system and only land on the Moon for a practical reason. “Get the Shuttle retired,” Friedman says. “Get the Ares [rocket] out there. Be the first out into interplanetary space. Keep going further and further for longer durations, always making steps toward Mars. And once the transportation infrastructure is in place, then we focus on using a lunar base for astronaut training.”

The society’s report has met with some criticism, however. The day after it was released, NASA’s chief administrator, Michael Griffin, stressed that, if he were to keep his job, he would require that the Bush administration’s mandate to first establish a base on the Moon before going further remain unchanged.

Some space advocates argue that a big boost in funding for NASA could allow the Obama administration to both keep the Shuttle and continue developing the Constellation Program. In addition, investing in space exploration could help the next president deliver on promises of creating jobs in high-tech industries during the current economic crisis. “One way to look at the space program in these economic times is that it is a jobs program,” AIAA’s Bell says. “It would be bad to encourage people to go into science and technology and then get rid of one of the agencies that is the primary employer for those types of people.”

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