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Obama fires up the Nasa rockets for a slow burn

Obama fires up the Nasa rockets for a slow burn

Kirk: “Scotty – I need more power, we have to get to Mars before the midterm elections!” Scott: “Captain – the engines kanna take any mora strain” Kirk: “Scotty – the other captains are gathering, telling me that we’re not moving fast enough and that the people of Florida are revolting...”

Well, okay, that isn’t a real snippet of dialogue from Star Trek, but it might well have served as the emotional (and political) backdrop for US President Barack Obama’s visit and speech at the Kennedy Space Center. Dissenting forcefully from the charge that he is drawing down America’s human spaceflight program, Obama strove to realign the country’s next space goals towards Mars and the asteroid belt instead of a return to the Moon to walk in our own footprints. As Obama said, “The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am.” But, he insisted that Nasa had to recalibrate how it does its job. Added Obama, “We’ve got to do it in a smart way, and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things we’ve been doing and thinking that’s going to get us where we want to go.”

Trying to reassure America, Nasa and its employees, and all those wavering Democratic voters in central Florida who are starting to worry about job loses in a recessionary climate just ahead of the midterm congressional election in November, Obama set out dates and destinations for a new generation of American astronauts – although they would only be able to reach an asteroid in 15 years from now – and Mars by sometime in the ’30s. 

Obama continued by saying: “Step by step, we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do. In short, 50 years after the creation of Nasa, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time.”

Obama’s plan recognises that the real joker in the deck is, to put it bluntly, simply not enough money to do everything. And so, rather than going back to the Moon with a manned space programme redux, Obama is now calling for private industry to create an innovative way to reach Mars, rather than echoing President Kennedy by calling for a national crusade and about a zillion dollars in national government budgets to demonstrate US technological predominance.

Watch: President Obama Pledges Total Commitment to NASA

Obama’s Nasa budget now calls for cancelling the Constellation new-generation delivery rocket programme that was begun some five years ago with the goal of sending astronauts back to the Moon, and turning, instead, to private companies to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Obama chose this moment to criticise his predecessors for failing to lead Nasa onto a new flight path consistent with national capabilities, financial resources and scientific excellence, arguing that previous plans have “risen and fallen with the political winds”. Obama argued, instead, that turning to private entrepreneurs would produce more space flights and more astronauts in orbit than the official Nasa plan he inherited. (Of course, it would also give the Russians some more revenue when they ferry astronauts and cosmonauts and payingcustomeronauts to and from the ISS.)

Not surprisingly, some congressmen – especially those from states that house Nasa centres working on the Constellation – the now-to-be-cancelled programme – object to this change. As Republican congressman from Texas Pete Olson claimed, “There’s no concrete plan; no deadlines to make it happen. It didn’t change my opinion at all.” And not surprisingly too, Olsen’s district includes the Houston Space Flight Center and he’s almost constitutionally required to protest anything that might affect a job-rich, sacred cow like the Texas-based space headquarters.

After previewing the administration’s plan ahead of his speech in Florida, the Obama administration did reconfigure its plans slightly. It is now proposing a revival of the cancelled delivery rocket’s Orion crew capsule as a lifeboat for the ISS. Or as Obama said, “This Orion effort will be part of the technological foundation for advanced spacecraft to be used in future deep space missions.”

Make no mistake, though. It is a midterm election year, and a number of Democratic congressmen and women such as Suzanne Kosmas, the representative from the district surrounding the Kennedy Space Center in Florida may find their re-election at risk – especially if they are seen as less than engaged in the struggle against impending unemployment at the Kennedy Center. Helping out, hopefully, Obama also promised $40 million to retrain workers in and around the Kennedy Space Center who will lose their jobs when the space shuttles are retired and there is no immediate replacement programme.

Obama also added that Nasa would start developing a heavy-lift rocket by 2015, a promise that is obviously connected somewhat with his re-election in 2012. As a result, all these announcements have a space science angle and a presidential election angle to them as well – Florida has 27 electoral votes and it has been a key battleground state for presidential elections in recent years.

Moreover, bringing the Orion capsule back from the dead might well have a significant impact on contractor Lockheed Martin (and its employees) whose executives have been upset over the proposed Constellation and Orion cancellations. Orion work is done largely at the Johnson Space Center and at Lockheed Martin facilities in Boulder, Colorado. While Orion as a space-station lifeboat may be a good move politically, some experts say the economic and technical rationales for the decision are unclear, as it would take about $8 billion to finish the development of the current version of Orion and a simpler version would still cost several billion dollars. “In the end, this seems like an expensive proposition that makes simply continuing to use the Russians for crew rescue look like a bargain,” said former Nasa administrator Michael Griffin. Of course, he has been a key proponent of the Constellation delivery rocket, so maybe he is just a teensy-tiny bit biased….

In making his pitch, Obama’s speech also demonstrated a split in the usually monolith-like cadre of former astronauts – Bill Nelson (also a Florida senator) and Buzz Aldrin lined up with Obama while James Lovell, Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan were critics of Obama’s plan. 

Of course, Bill Nye, “The Science Guy” was on Obama’s side as well, saying, “The US is going to new exciting destinations beyond the influence of Earth gravity and make discoveries that we can’t predict. I think the concern is change. People are just afraid of change.” So, maybe, Obama will capture the attention of all those young science and tech enthusiasts who will be the foundation of any Nasa effort in 20 years, anyway.

By J Brooks Spector

For more, read, the New York Times, AP and Nasa

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at opening session of Space Conference at NASA Operations and Checkout Building in Cape Canaveral, Florida, April 15, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young


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