Obama’s Space Plan: Astronauts to Asteroids

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama spoke at the Kennedy Space Center, addressing the critics of his Administration’s plans for the future of NASA, indicating that there will be quite a lot to expect from the space administration in the coming years and decades.

Amongst the leading concerns, even some voiced by noted astronauts Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11), Gene Cernan (Apollo 10/17) and Jim Lovell (Apollo 8/13), charging the Obama administration with formulating a plan that would restrict NASA in the near future, and potentially allowing the U.S. to slip behind other nations in space supremacy. Much of the controversy has been around the massive Constellation program and its cancellation. With it went the first elements of a future moon program that would have utilized the new Ares 1 rocket and the Orion capsule.

President Obama noted at the speech that he was 100% behind the program, noting that the achievements that the Administration have provided much inspiration for the entire nation, noting that a space program was an essential element of the American character. The speech was mainly centered around what was to come: a six billion dollar increase in NASA’s budget over the next six years, which would be used to fund new programs, research and development for new means to reach space.

A major element of the speech was noting the issues with the Constellation program as a whole, and that the changes put into place would be more effective, faster and cheaper. The Constellation program was already behind schedule and over budget, according to an independent study, something that NASA itself really didn’t want. However, the President noted that a couple of elements from the program would be salvaged: the Orion capsule, to become an escape vehicle for the International Space Station, and alluded that a new, heavy-lift rocket would be developed by 2015, using older models – most likely, coming out of the Ares rocket design.

This mention of a new, heavy-lift rocket is a critical component of the President’s speech, because it signals a very different style of spaceflight in the future. A heavy-lift rocket will allow astronauts to travel away from a low earth orbit, for the first time since Apollo 17 (1975). Plans to land astronauts on an asteroid, and eventually, by the mid-2030s, to Mars, with a series of ever-increasing challenges to reach that goal, much like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions were geared towards reaching the Moon.

Additionally, private industry will be a major component of this plan, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket getting named in the beginning of the speech. The President made a vital point in the middle of his speech, noting that Private industry has always been a major part of NASA’s plans, and that that relationship would continue. Personally, I find this to be an exciting proposition, with a number of companies starting up and well on their way towards reaching space. SpaceX is a company that I’ve personally followed for a couple of years now, and I’m very excited to see what they come up with next. Bringing in private industry makes sense to me, because it helps to shift some of the costs away from taxpayers, and it would seem that the President hopes that a major industry that will attract industry and highly skilled workers will spring up in the Florida region. To that end, they’ve promised $40 million towards an area redevelopment plan to further this along.

This seems to fit with a larger element of the Administration’s plans, especially bringing more people to college and by extension, creating a highly knowledgeable and skilled workforce. The main issue there is that this work force needs a place to exist after college, and it would be a positive thing for the country to grow and maintain a major industry that is geared towards space exploration.

There were some issues with President Obama’s speech. His address did not cover what the short term ramifications of creating a new program would be, and with the Space Shuttle program ending this year, it is likely that NASA will be left no choice but to travel to space with the Russians, at least until a replacement can be found. SpaceX is working towards this goal, but that is something that is a little ways out at this point. To his credit, Obama noted that the decision to cancel the Space Shuttle program did not come from his administration, but from the Bush administration, who rightly saw that the Shuttle was an aging piece of technology that would need to be replaced.

Furthermore, the President noted that he was not interested in returning to the Moon, setting his sights on the Red Planet instead. I can’t see a Martian mission being put into place without further exploration of the moon happening: The U.S. has been away from the Moon for 35 years at this point, and additional training and practice. Considering the distances involved for a Mars landing mission, it would make sense to perfect technology and crews close to home, where problems can be solved far more easily, and in the event that something goes wrong, solutions are far more achievable.

One thing is for sure, this plan, to me, sounds very ambitious, exciting and most of all, provides a rough point for NASA to work towards in the next twenty years: Mars. While the speech did not resonate with me as Kennedy’s speech in 1961 did, I hope that we will see much of the same results, and that the change in plans will pay off for the United States. What is most exciting is that there is a plan beyond simply going to space as a sort of placeholder, as the Shuttle program seems to really be. The first age of space was marked with a goal and time: land on the moon by the end of the decade, and is something that should have been followed upon with a larger project that would have taken the lessons learned from Apollo and applied them to new ventures in space. In short, Obama’s plan is long overdue, something that should have been put into place twenty years ago, and that should have yielded results by this point.