Image: Pete Souza / White House
Spaceflight and politics are strange bedfellows. Big decisions come from the president, go through Congress for funding, and are executed by NASA, a civilian agency. The problem with this arrangement in the United States is that our leadership changes on a fairly regular basis. A president's reelection can help the big goals in space get off the ground, which is what we might see during Obama's second term in office. NASA will likely stay on the same track it’s been on since Obama first took office in 2008, but that doesn't mean we'll get the manned mission to the Moon and Mars we've been promised.
The Orion capsule, via NASA
Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, laid out a grand plan for NASA in 2004. He called for manned missions to the Moon by 2020 and manned missions to Mars and beyond in the following decades (as well as completion of the International Space Station and retirement of the space shuttle). To make these deep space goals a reality, NASA embarked upon the Constellation program, which included the spacecraft Orion, the lunar lander Altair, and the new Ares I cargo rocket and Ares V manned rocket.
When Obama took office, things changed. He cancelled Constellation but kept Orion, pairing it with the massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket as the hardware for missions to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and beyond. Right now, an unmanned Orion is set to launch on a Delta rocket in 2014, the first unmanned SLS-Orion combination sometimes in 2019, and the first manned mission in 2021. In the meantime, NASA will continue to lean on the growing commercial sector for launches to low Earth orbit.
The SLS rocket, via Wikipedia
So NASA, it seems, is still focused on getting men back to the Moon. But not wanting to repeat what's been done, there are murmurs that NASA is looking at landing a mission, and possible establishing an outpost, on the Moon's far side. Apollo flight directors actually planned a similar mission in the late 1960s as a way to prove their men and machines were up to the challenge, but the mission never went anywhere.
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver echoed to the agency's forward momentum in September. “We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations which makes clear that SLS will go way beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and ultimately, Mars,” she said. “Let me say that again: We’re going back to the moon, attempting a first-ever mission to send humans to an asteroid and actively developing a plan to take Americans to Mars.”
The long-range plan after returning to the Moon would be to visit and explore a LaGrange point and visit an asteroid sometime around 2025, before heading towards Mars. It's a plan NASA officials consider feasible in light of the agency's current $17.7 billion annual funding.
The problem with these goals – the Moon, Mars, asteroids, LaGrange points – is that everything is still largely on paper. There are preliminary versions of Orion and boilerplate (test) models kicking around, but we're still years away from having actual flight hardware that will prove itself in space.
I'm personally wary of promises NASA makes about big missions, especially on the manned front. I heard NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden speak last weekend about NASA's future in space. It was an inspiring speech about how we're not losing the space race to the Chinese, how we're not standing still, how we're taking on these big goals to retain our long-standing lead in space. Inspiring, maybe, but it was basically a series of really good soundbites. He didn't say anything concrete about the real challenges and realistic ends in space, a trend I've seen with a number of NASA officials.
The root of NASA's problems with unrealized goals come from the regular rotation in the White House. Obama's second term will end in 2016, which means SLS will still be three years from flying when someone new takes over the Oval Office. A lot has to happen before NASA can start building its new big rocket, and if we still don't have flight hardware by 2016, there's a chance we never will. Budget overruns and slipping schedules (both of which we've already seen with SLS) will only compound the problem.
In 1963, President Kennedy asked NASA Administrator James Webb if he'd be in office when Apollo landed on the Moon. No, Webb replied. Even if Kennedy had had a second term in office, he wouldn't have been the guest of honour the day Apollo 11 launched.
A president with two terms certainly gets us closer to seeing big missions become a reality, but ultimately if every president forces NASA to start over, we're going to have a really hard time getting anywhere. There's some buzz around the space-geeks online that there's a big announcement coming from NASA soon of a big, exciting mission around which the nation can rally. But it's sort of dangerous to get your hopes up. I'd love to see the SLS fly, and I know launch pad and logistic preparations are underway, but it's still unclear where the program will end up.
What's lacking in all these proposed missions is sustainability. Going to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids are billed as standalone, exciting flights, with manned outposts and research stations springing up some time in the future. But while they sound wonderful, those plans don’t do a great job of laying out all the little steps it takes to get there. What we need is a vision for our future in space that sees a progressive and methodical foundation laid in space before taking these grand missions. A progressive approach is suspiciously missing from NASA's plans, and this might come back to haunt the agency.