Recently, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated that NASA would be “doomed” if the next president were to deviate in any way from the current Journey to Mars program. Space journalist and founder of the America Space website Jim Hillhouse took exception to Bolden’s assertion in a Monday letter to the aerospace newspaper Space News. In the process, Hillhouse provides a good summary of how space policy has evolved during the past five years under the Obama administration. In so doing he provides a pretty good case for a course correction of the sort that this author advocated in his recent book “Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon?”
First, Hillhouse notes that the president Bolden reports to was not shy about ending a previous program he had inherited from a prior administration.
“Bolden states that a new administration shouldn’t change NASA’s human spaceflight goals, yet glosses over the fact that the current administration ended the Constellation moon program with its 2010 budget submission. He appears incognizant that it has been only through annual efforts by Congress to reverse the administration’s proposed cuts in funding to the Orion and Space Launch System programs that any capability remains in development to even contemplate sending astronauts to any destination beyond low Earth orbit within the next decade. Lastly, Bolden appears to believe, mistakenly, that the administration can alone set the destination for the nation’s space program.”
Defenders of the administration’s ending of the Constellation program assert that it had become financially unsustainable. But they do not point out that President Obama had the option, suggested by the Augustine Report’s “Moon First” proposal, of “mending not ending” Constellation. President Bill Clinton used that approach to transform the Space Station Freedom project into the International Space Station, currently orbiting the Earth and churning out great science and technology.
Hillhouse goes on to relate the chaos that attended the end of Constellation and the evolution of the Journey to Mars. It featured bureaucratic foot-dragging by NASA, followed by a subpoena and threats of NASA officials being charged with contempt of Congress to force the space agency to comply with the 2010 authorization act that created the current Journey to Mars effort.
What about the Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply programs, which the Obama administration has claimed to be the crown jewels of its space policy? Hillhouse weighs them in the balance and finds them wanting as well.
“In early 2011, because the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program had spent to its contract ceiling of $500 million, and with neither of the two contractors, SpaceX or Orbital Sciences, within another two years of sending anything into ISS, NASA had no choice but to bail out the COTS contractors with $239 million, nearly 50 percent over the original COTS contract. And today, with public records showing that the follow-on Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program has been paid nearly up to the contract ceiling of $3.5 billion, and with not even half the launches completed, it’s looking increasingly as though a bailout of the CRS contractors will be needed at some point. Although Bolden calls COTS and CRS successes, one is left wondering how many more of his successes NASA can afford.”
To be fair, the concept of commercial space transportation was part of President George W. Bush’s space policy. But under Bush, the commercial providers were expected to invest far more money than is being demanded by the Obama administration. Also, Bush had a backup option for transportation to low Earth orbit in the form of the Orion that would have been launched by the now-defunct Ares 1.
What about the Journey to Mars? Hillhouse finds that the Obama administration is undermining the very program that Bolden is touting as necessary for the survival of NASA.
“Given Bolden’s desire to pursue the ‘Journey to Mars,’ it would seem only natural that the Orion and SLS programs, the only means currently in development for taking us beyond low Earth orbit, would be doing well since 2010. They are, but not for lack of effort by the Obama administration to underfund them — proposals that congressional appropriators each year reverse. Since 2012, annual White House proposed budgets for NASA have fallen short of authorized levels by 78 percent and 70 percent respectively for the Orion or SLS programs.
“NASA also has annually withheld funding for the Orion and SLS programs for termination liability reserves, never mind that as programs of record they could not be terminated without authorization from Congress, something the White House knew wasn’t even remotely on the table. Because of the termination liability withholdings, the Orion and SLS programs annually have had access to only about 80 percent of their appropriated funding since their beginning. Nonetheless, Orion is on course to complete its Critical Design Review by December, and SLS completed its CDR last summer.”
Finally, while an uncrewed launch of the Orion/Space Launch System is slated for 2018 and the first crewed mission is scheduled for 2021-23, NASA has beem a bit vague about what other missions would be mounted leading up to the first missions to Mars in the 2030s. These missions would go to “cislunar space,” a term that can have a wealth of meanings.
The bottom line is that the next president is likely to make quite a few changes to NASA’s space exploration program starting in 2017. The betting is that while Mars will still be on the table, the nature of the missions leading to it will take shape. A return to the lunar surface will more than likely be a center part of NASA plans for the 2020s and beyond, not only for its own sake but to support the exploration of the Red Planet. Without such a change, NASA may well be “doomed.”