Trading American Preeminence for Mediocrity—or Worse
by Walter Cunningham for the Houston Chronicle
February 2010

President Obama’s budget proposal may not be a death knell for NASA, but it certainly accelerates America’s downward spiral toward mediocrity in space exploration. Now it’s up to NASA’s leaders to put the best face possible on this nail that the administration is trying to hammer into their coffin.

This proposal is not a “bold new course for human space flight,” nor is it a “fundamental reinvigoration of NASA.” It is quite the opposite, and I have no doubt the people at NASA will see it for what it is—a rationalization for pursuing mediocrity. It mandates huge changes and offers little hope for the future. My heart goes out to those who have to defend it.

NASA has always been a political football. Their lifeblood is money, and they have been losing blood for several decades. The only hope now for a life-saving transfusion to stop the hemorrhaging is Congress.

It is hard to be optimistic. President Obama has apparently decided the United States should not be in the human space flight business. He obviously thinks NASA’s historic mission is a waste of time and money. Until just two months before his election, he was proposing to use the $18 billion NASA budget as a piggy bank to fund his favored education programs. With this budget proposal, he is taking a step in that direction.

NASA is not just a place to spend money, or to count jobs. It is the agency that has given us a better understanding of our present and hope for our future; an agency that gives us something to inspire us, especially the young people.

NASA’s Constellation program was not “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.” It was due to perennial budget deficiencies for this program. It would have been sustainable for an annual increase equal to the amount thrown away on the “cash for clunkers” program, or just a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars expended annually on Congressional “earmarks.”

It’s debatable whether Constellation was the best solution to President Bush’s vision of “Moon, Mars and Beyond,” but it was far better than the vacuum in which we now find ourselves, and without a viable alternative in sight.

Yes, jobs will be lost and the local economy will suffer. This will hurt and be readily measured. In the long run, intangible losses (those on which we cannot put a price tag) will be far more devastating.

The cancellation of Constellation will guarantee several things.

Most important, strategically, is the gap, the period during which we will be dependent on Russia to carry Americans to our own space station. With the cancellation of Constellation, that gap will grow longer, not shorter. American astronauts will not travel into space on American developed and built spacecraft until at least 2016 or 2017.

We are not trying to fix any deficiencies in Constellation; our fate will be in the hands of commercial companies with COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program awards. They will attempt to regain our lost greatness with new capsules and new rockets or military rockets, after man rating them. Supposedly, they will do this faster and cheaper than NASA. Cheaper, maybe; faster is not going to happen. These will be companies that have never made a manned rocket and have little idea of the problems they face trying to man rate a brand new launch vehicle and space capsule.

Even under the best of circumstances, humans will not be flying to the ISS on COTS developed vehicles before 2017.

After fifty years and several hundred billion dollars, the accomplishments of NASA and the U.S. space program in science, technology and exploration are unchallenged. They are admired, respected and envied by people and countries around the world. Our space program has provided inspiration to the human spirit for young and old alike. It said proudly to the world that Americans could accomplish whatever they set their minds to. Look at the efforts of China and India in the last 30 years to emulate this success.

Young people have always been inspired with talk of sending explorers to the planets. Do you think they will have the same reaction when we speak of the new plan for "transformative technology development"?

NASA may have been backing away from the real challenge of human space flight for years, but in canceling Constellation and NASA manned vehicles, we are, in effect abdicating our role as the leading space faring nation of the world. America will lose its preeminence in space.

The real economic impact will not be immediate.

The public at large is not fully aware of NASA’s role as a principal driver in our economy for the past 50 years. They forget that much of the technology we now take for granted either originated in the space program or was utilized and improved by the space program. That is NASA’s real legacy. The investments we made in NASA in the sixties are still paying off in technology applications and new businesses.

The annual investment in NASA is not simply an expenditure; it is an investment—with a payback. The payback is generated because NASA operates at the frontiers of space, exploring the frontiers of our civilization.

At the frontiers of space, be it going to Mars, or constructing the most amazing engineering project in history—the International Space Station—huge obstacles, sometimes considered insurmountable, are encountered. NASA takes these obstacles as challenges that must be overcome to reach their goals. The solution may lie in new technology, or a new application of existing technology. These solutions eventually make their way into the marketplace with applications we never even dreamed of. NASA has tens of thousands of examples of these “spinoffs.”

Now, after spending $11 billion on the development and close out of the Ares 1 launch vehicle and the Orion space capsule, we are eliminating them. Gone!  And with them, most of NASA’s human space flight program. In the ongoing struggle for leadership in science, technology and exploration, which was represented by America’s pre-eminence in space, we have raised the white flag of surrender.

Who will this proposed budget please? It will please those who have opposed the Constellation Program and have a vested interest in an alternative plan; those who are against human space exploration and for unmanned exploration; and those who will benefit from the COTS Program.

None of this new “vision” sits very well with those of us who have known NASA at its best. From its inception, one of NASA’s motivating forces was pride in being the very best, in displaying American leadership in human space flight, and maintaining the preeminence in space that derived from this attitude. It appears this attitude is foreign to a president who believes American preeminence should be avoided at all costs.

Mr. Obama, we do not want a space program that turns us into “just another country” among countries.