Barack Obama on NASA

Last Updated : Apr 20, 2011

Summary

President Obama has shown a great deal of opposition to manned space flight and exploration.  During the campaign, Senator Obama expressed a desire to halt NASA's manned space flight program for 5 years.  He then expressed support for the program.  After assuming office, he convened a committee to determine the viability of the program and offer suggestions.  The committee gave several possible paths for the program.  The President decided to end the program all together.

President Obama has been very vague about his plans for NASA in the future. He has expressed support for using the private industry to transfer astronauts to the International Space Station, but does not address the logistical issues relevant to such a proposal, such as the fact that no such system exists, and the one in planning is far behind the comparable portion of the Constellation project. The International Space Station is scheduled for decommissioning in 2020. If funding began in 2012 (the earliest likely date), then a five year completion path means that a transfer system built by the private industry would be used for three years at most. Most scientists believe that the project would take longer than 5 years.

In June of 2010, President Obama's administrator for NASA stated in an interview that he was tasked by President Obama to find a way to reach out to the muslim world and to help make muslim countries feel good about their historic contributions to math and science. Press Secretary Gibbs stated that Administrator Bolden misspoke.

 

History of manned space flight

 Manned space flight began with the Mercury space program which ran from 1959 to 1963 and had the goal of putting a man into orbit.  The Gemini program ran between the Mercury and Apollo programs and was a series of 10 flights in 1965 and 1966.  The purpose of the Gemini program was to develop the technologies necessary for the Apollo space program.  The Apollo program had the goal of landing on the moon.  Between July 20, 1969 and December 1972, six flights went to the moon with 12 men walking on the surface of the moon.  The next program was Skylab.  Skylab was a first attempt at a small orbiting space station.  After a few missions where spacecraft docked with the structure and astronauts remained on board, no missions were launched to dock with it beyond 1974.

Next, NASA decided to build a space station to remain in low earth orbit instead of attempting to build a lunar base.  To carry the components of the station into orbit, NASA designed the Space Shuttle.  A total of 5 shuttles were built which flew a combined total of 134 flights with the final flight scheduled for early 2011.  The Space Transportation System (STS) began to construct the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998.  The ISS is mostly complete and awaiting only a few small components.  The ISS is scheduled to remain in orbit until at least 2020.

After the STS space shuttle system is retired, the United States will no longer have a method of reaching the International Space Station.  To alleviate this problem and plan the future of manned space flight, President Bush called for and congress authorized the Vision for Space Exploration in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005.  This vision was eventually called the Constellation program and had a series of vehicles which would provide the capability to get people to the ISS, and then eventually back to the moon and to Mars.

The vehicles of the Constellation program consisted of capsules to hold the crew and launch vehicles capable of carrying those capsules to low earth orbit, to the moon, and to Mars.  The Ares I, Saturn V, and Ares V vehicles were proposed to carry those capsules and are shown below with their lift capability compared to the Shuttle.  The Ares I would have carried the Orion capsule to the ISS, while the Saturn V and Ares V would have provided heavy lift capability for the heavier loads of the other missions.

Lockheed Martin was selected as the prime contractor on the project on August 31, 2006.  The design they proposed was similar to the previous Apollo program, but with new technology and capabilities to meet the required mission for each variant of the given vehicle. One capsule was designed to ferry men back and forth from the ISS and had the required docking components.  The moon landing version was proposed to have additional components similar to the Apollo moon missions.  Initially, the hope was that the Orion component, which was the capsule to take astronauts to the Space Station, would be operational by 2012 and come online as the Space Shuttle was leaving service.  The last estimates of the completion were 2015 to 2017.

 

Initial opposition to Constellation

Initially, Senator Obama expressed a desire on his campaign website to suspend NASA's Constellation program for 5 years and use the money to pay for education expenses.  

 

Support for the Constellation Program

As the campaign for the presidency lengthened and Florida came into play, Senator Obama shifted his position and expressed support both for NASA and for the Constellation program.  On August 2, 2008, Senator Obama spoke in Titusville, Florida, a town just outside of the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Florida.  He claimed at this time to support NASA and the Constellation program.  

An article dated the same day from spaceflightnow.com shows further statements from Senator Obama.

 

The Augustine Committee

On May 7, 2009 the Obama administration announced that they would be launching a committee to investigate the best path for the future of human space flight.  The committee which was formed to complete this task was named the Augustine Committee after it's chair Norman Augustine.  Although he had previously been a CEO for Lockheed Martin, Augustine was a well known critic of the Constellation program, causing many to assume that the Obama administration was merely seeking scientific cover for the cancellation of the program.

However, when the committee issued its findings, it did not make recommendations on the Constellation program.  The committee merely concluded that NASA was on an unsustainable path.  It found that NASA's budget allowed it to either run a major manned program or engineer a new one, but not do both at the same time without the addition of roughly $3 Billion dollars annually until the end of the shuttle program.

 

Cancellation of the Constellation Program

On February 1, 2010 President Obama's budget was released for 2011 and funding for the program was not in the budget. The President had decided to extend the International Space Station from its previous deadline of 2015 to 2020. Although this leaves the United States with no method of reaching the Space Station between 2011 and 2020, the President has advocated that the US pay the Soviet Union to carry US astronauts to the station, and then allow private companies to develop a vehicle to carry the astronauts.

 

Controversy in cancellation

To reach the ISS, the US must now purchase rides from the Russians on their Soyuz vehicles at a tune of $50 million dollars per person per trip.  These Soyuz vehicles carry 3 personnel to the station, remain docked to the station for prolonged periods of time and then carry the astronauts back at the end of the mission.

The Obama administration has called for the continuation of the Orion capsule to be used as a lifeboat on the station to provide an emergency return to earth.  The vehicle would fly to the station, dock automatically, and then remain there in case of emergency.  At its current pace, the orion capsule would not be complete until at least 2015.  This would give the program only 5 years of use before the end of the space station program in 2020.  The use of the capsule as a life boat is also pointless as the Russian Soyuz vehicles already act in that capacity.

Opponents hold that the call for private industry to create a feasible alternative is simply not realistic.  Aside from the fact that the Constellation program itself was being built by a private company in Lockheed Martin, the private companies are years behind the Constellation program in design and development.

 

NASA as a Muslim Outreach Program

In June of 2010, NASA administrator Charles Bolden spoke with Al Jazeera television in an interview about space policy. In that interview, administrator Bolden spoke about the priorities for NASA and listed as one of the most important functions of NASA to be an outreach program for muslim countries around the world.

 

A couple of weeks later, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about the statements and stated that NASA Administrator Bolden had misspoken. When asked if the President had cleared up the mission of NASA, Mr Gibbs said no. When asked if someone at the White House had spoken to NASA, Mr Gibbs said that people at the White House spoke to people at NASA all the time.

 

 

A Bold New Course for NASA

In April of 2010, President Obama spoke at the Kennedy Space Center about the future of the space program and to lay out what he believed should be the new course for NASA. He was critical of NASA policies of the past and stated that previous administrations had failed to set clear, achievable goals and to then fund those goals.

 

Sponsored and Cosponsored Legislation

This representative has not been identified as sponsoring or cosponsoring significant legislation related to this title.

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