OPINION: How NASA became a ping-pong ball
For three decades, NASA’s human space flight program was in a secure, albeit uninspiring, trajectory – low-Earth orbit. The loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her seven-member crew on Feb. 1, 2003, changed all that. The Shuttle era was set to end and the agency would discover there’s something even more dangerous than re-entering Earth’s atmosphere with damaged heat tiles – politicians.
After the loss of Columbia on mission STS-107, George W. Bush directed NASA to restore its ability to send astronauts to the Moon in 2004 so that they could develop the methods and technologies to send crews to Mars and then beyond. Moon, Mars, and Beyond would go on to become the mantra of the Vision for Space Exploration, the guiding plan for the agency’s Constellation Program which was initiated to fulfill Bush’s directive.
Bush’s 2005 Budget Request for the space agency saw an almost six percent increase in the agency’s budget. The space agency provided initial estimates that Constellation would cost approximately $230 billion. However, according to a report by the General Accounting Office, “unsolved technical and design challenges” made it impossible for the agency to provide a conclusive estimate. It turns out restoring abilities lost more than three decades earlier would require substantial investment. Who knew?
There was an additional hitch: Bush didn’t follow through with this initiative. Bush’s subsequent budget proposal requests didn’t provide the agency with the funds required to bring the Orion spacecraft, Altair lander, and the Ares I and Ares V rockets into service. According to Space.com, subsequent budget requests failed to even keep up with inflation. NASA, in order to balance its budget, was forced to cut spending on science programs in order to extend the development of the Ares I and Ares V rockets. This rankled former Senator and astronaut John H. Glenn (D-Ohio) who worked with Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to provide NASA with an additional $2.8–3 billion to help the space agency continue flying the Space Shuttle until Orion and Ares came online. NASA needed additional funding.
According to a report written by the Planetary Society, NASA had less than half of the budget it had during the Apollo Program that saw crews set foot on the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Worst still? It had none of the infrastructure or systems in place. All of those were lost when NASA had the ability to send astronauts beyond Earth taken from them and were directed to develop the Space Shuttle.
When an agency can build the infrastructure and send crews to the Moon within eight years (President Kennedy announced his plans to send astronauts to the Moon on May 25, 1961, with Neil Armstrong’s first steps there taking place in July of 1969), but can’t even get one crew-rated spacecraft to fly astronauts to low-Earth orbit within 19 years (the current date of Orion’s first crewed flight is 2023), what more needs to be said? NASA developed and flew not one but four crew-rated spacecraft and five crew-rated rockets in that same eight-year time span.
The fault isn’t NASA’s or their contractors. NASA had the Apollo infrastructure taken from them; its remaining Saturn V Moon rockets collect dust at tourist destinations – just as the space shuttles now do.
The shuttles were only half of what space visionary Wernher von Braun had imagined. With a space station and a shuttle working as an orbital platform, as well as a shipyard, from which crews would travel to Mars, the Shuttle-Station duo was to be how NASA would go from sending astronauts to the Moon – to sending them to Mars. He wanted to begin laying out infrastructure that could be built upon to allow humanity to explore our Solar System.
It wasn’t to be.
President Nixon told NASA they could have the Space Shuttle or a space station, but not both. The shuttle would fly for 17 years before it had a place to fly to, and it required the participation of 15 additional nations to make that possible. The station, parts of which were on orbit for half a decade, saw the other half of von Braun’s vision for crewed Mars exploration breathe its last when the second shuttle to be lost, Columbia, disintegrated in the skies above Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. NASA went from not having one element of this equation to losing the second half. First, the agency had a spacecraft with no place to go to; now it had a station – but no way to send astronauts to it.
The agency was told to send crews, as the Vision for Space Exploration stated, “[…] to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.” However, they wouldn’t be allowed to finish that either.
With the required funding denied to the Constellation Program, it stalled and, as is likely to happen every 4–8 years in Washington D.C., the presidency changed hands from Republicans to Democrats.
On the 2008 presidential campaign trail, then-candidate Barack H. Obama stated he wanted to shelve the Constellation Program for five years and, instead, redirect the funds (which would have been enabled NASA to return to the Moon) for his $18 billion educational programs, as was noted in this report on Wired.com.
Politicians from key “space” states stepped in. If the Illinois senator wanted their support, he’d have to support space. He traveled to and spoke at Brevard County, Florida, on Aug. 2, 2008. While there, he stated he’d support their efforts for the agency to travel to “the Moon, Mars and beyond.” Sound familiar? Some will try and convince you that, those present, should have “parsed” the politician’s words. For those who believed in Obama and “Hope and Change”, the betrayal that came must have seemed harsh. It shouldn’t have been. He told them, via his earlier announcement, exactly what he wanted to do.
Video courtesy of WordsmithFL
During Obama’s first inaugural parade, NASA was positioned dead last – even behind the “world famous” U.S. Lawn Rangers and their brightly colored lawn mowers. Ouch. Contrary to Obama’s promises in the video above, NASA would do anything but “inspire the world” and, nearly a decade after his promises, the space agency is still buying flights to the International Space Station from Russia to the tune of $70 million per seat.
The second Augustine Commission was formed by the Obama Administration in 2009. It was a commission that, by its design, was limited in what it could propose. So, the “flexible path” was suggested. Under this, NASA was unable to return to the Moon or eventually send crews to Mars. Rather than reorganize the program, have more commercial elements and other initiatives incorporated into it, NASA was left only one option: cancel Constellation and make no effort to utilize the six years of work and roughly $9 billion already invested in it.
Under Obama’s 2010 Budget Proposal, Constellation was canceled and the agency would develop technologies for space exploration. It is unsure how this redirection would “inspire the world.” Obama’s view of NASA appeared to be to make it as irrelevant as possible, to have it make Muslims feel good about their contributions to science, to provide jobs, to feed starving children in other nations, and to combat global warming. In short? Under Obama, the agency would do everything but send crews to explore our Solar System.
This didn’t go over well, so President Obama paid a visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010. Its workforce was largely kept away from the Operations and Checkout building where he made his remarks. He announced that all of NASA’s crewed space exploration efforts would be shelved, but he threw in an Orion spacecraft as a lifeboat to the ISS as a consolation prize (oddly, there was no mention of how the spacecraft would get there, as the rocket that was being developed to launch it was also canceled). One of the more ill-spoken things Obama said during his remarks was that, regarding the Moon, is that we’d “been there.” This is the view of a tourist, and, for comparison, suggesting that someone who visits a small town in South Carolina has “been to” the United States emphasizes how poorly thought out his comment was.
Making matters worse, he stated NASA would conduct what would come to be called “Asteroid Redirect Mission.” An asteroid, or part of one, would be towed to lunar orbit by a robot and then crews would travel to the asteroid. Obama’s ‘directive’ received tepid applause from those in attendance. Essentially, ARM was a proposal to inflate a kiddie pool in front of the Atlantic Ocean. The project made no sense and Obama went down as the “anywhere but the Moon” president.
In a rare show of leadership, Congress opted to keep parts of Constellation going. While fans of commercial space efforts wanted these projects scrapped and the funds to go to their favorite companies, the legislature opted to not keep all its eggs in one basket. Orion would survive and a new rocket – one largely based on the Ares V concept, now called the Space Launch System or “SLS” – was established. However, Orion and SLS really didn’t have a clear destination; it was suggested they would be used for ARM. Obama’s space policy was vague, confused and it left the agency in a tailspin.
With the VSE and Constellation canceled, these vehicles were deemed as having no destination to go to. Enter NASA’s “Journey to Mars.” Something that the U.S. space agency has labored under, with no clear leadership or directive from the White House during the Obama years. In a July 2017 report appearing on Ars Technica, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, William Gerstenmaier, admitted the agency couldn’t afford to land crews on Mars.
Between 2010 and Obama’s departure in 2016, NASA generally saw its budget frozen at the previous year’s level, or with decreases to its planetary missions, or its efforts directed to bolster commercial programs. However, what of the vision that Obama promised would inspire the world? That was nowhere to be found. Instead, the divisions within the space community widened and the crewed space flight gap became an ever-increasing abyss.
Here we go again
This week, President Donald J. Trump directed NASA to do… the same thing President George W. Bush directed them to do in 2004. Perhaps Trump will actually provide the proper funding for his Space Policy Directive 1. However, as it stands now, the level of déjà vu on NASA’s current plight is discouraging. According to a report appearing on Business Insider, Trump ordered NASA to start what it had been working on eight years ago – but he has cut the space agency’s budget to an “all-time low.”
For some reason, there’s been little notice that Trump’s Space Policy Directive 1 directs NASA to do what the agency was told to stop doing in 2010. One wonders if the next president cancels Space Policy Directive 1 and directs NASA to tug an asteroid into lunar orbit – if anyone would remember that the agency had been working on that before they had been told to stop doing that. Since 2003, NASA has had at least four directives and it’s likely, with the coming of a new administration, it will add a fifth one to that number. One wonders how far Space Policy Directive 1 will get before it too is canceled.
NASA is now an agency adrift, incapable of accomplishing the various directives laid out in front of it. Any initiative should be viewed as a temporary farce, something the next administration will cancel and all the work that NASA employees and contractors do will end up going nowhere.
As noted, when Obama canceled Constellation, the agency had been working on the program for about six years and had already invested about $9 billion. He could have placed a cap on the program’s spending and order it to be restructured as the James Webb Space Telescope was. Orion could have been renamed the Obama spacecraft and it still would have been better than just canceling everything and wasting years’ worth of work, changes to the very landscape at Kennedy Space Center, and the $9 billion already invested. The level of waste involved in Obama’s decision wasn’t even the worst part – it was the precedent it set.
The worst thing
Many inside the space ‘community’ feared that every 4–8 years NASA would be redirected somewhere else. What President Trump has done is to confirm these fears. He’s (re)directed NASA back to the path it was on before Obama was in charge.
Was what NASA was doing under Obama perfect? No, but it was showing signs of working. Commercial companies were starting to handle low-Earth orbit operations and the agency was (slowly) meeting milestones as it prepared to restore its ability to travel beyond LEO. The two-pronged approach to space exploration was showing signs it could work. Sure NewSpace fans hated it and wanted the contracts all for themselves, but, for all their other failings, the politicians weren’t listening. It was far from perfect – but it was working (more or less).
Now? NASA has been given the following message: “What you’re working on now likely will be canceled every four-to-eight years.” NASA has been presented with a constantly-changing target. The agency is unlikely to achieve much of anything in terms of crewed deep space exploration. As one News Chief at the KSC Press Site once told his staff: “Most of you work under the ‘here-after’ philosophy. You keep your heads down, comfortable in the knowledge you’ll be ‘here’ ‘after’ the current elected officials are gone.”
Who is to blame?
During the Apollo years, NASA went through three presidents, two Democrats (Kennedy and Johnson) and one Republican (Nixon). The difference between now and then is the “Apollo Presidents” didn’t try to erase what their predecessors had established. As sad as the end of Apollo was, at least the presidents of that time allowed them to finish. Recent U.S. leaders – won’t even allow NASA to do that.
Bush didn’t provide the resources needed, and, in so doing, provided Obama with the excuse to cancel everything – which then led to Congress stepping in. Now? Trump has directed NASA to return to what it had been working on seven years ago and, in so doing, officially cancel what the agency had been working on under Obama. The pattern has begun and, rather than set partisanship aside, it is more likely that we’re now in a set pattern. Don’t like the current path NASA has been (re)directed on? Don’t worry, the next president will change it, then the next one will change that, and on and on. What’s NASA’s actual new ‘vision?’ It is to spite the other side.
Who’s to blame for this? Republicans are. Democrats are. We all are. We let this happen, and rather than come together and fight for a coherent long-term space policy, we side with conservatives or liberals because of party politics. NASA’s last Administrator, Charles Bolden, a former U.S. Marine Corps General, could have stayed and fought for the agency when Trump was elected. Rather, he appears to have played party politics, fleeing the agency when it was announced Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton. It was Bolden that made the comments about how NASA would work to bolster Islamic pride in the religion’s past contributions to science during an interview on Al Jazeera.
Video courtesy of Al Jazeera English
As was noted on Smithsonian.org, while many laud Obama’s support of NASA’s Commercial Cargo and Crew Programs, they (conveniently) forget that these programs were initiated under the presidency of George W. Bush. Make no bones about it, NASA’s commercial efforts are a win for the agency, but both Bush and Obama are to be congratulated for that. Does that ever happen? No. Therein lies the problem. It’s pretended as if only one ‘side’ or the other is responsible for certain things, when, in many cases, this simply isn’t true.
So, while it’s correct to state Bush (43rd president) is to blame for NASA’s current state, so too it is true that Obamanauts are actuality “Obama-nots” and Trump’s recent actions are furthering a precedent set by both Bush and Obama. There’s a lesson here if we’re willing to learn it. Both sides are to blame, and both are furthering the partisanship that will ensure NASA’s greatest days are behind it. While it would be wonderful to see both sides of the political aisle stand behind NASA, it’s far more likely that they will highlight the failings of their opposition while ignoring their own.
In the end, it will be likely some time before the United States sends crews beyond Earth, and anyone who tells you this president or that political body is to blame is, in their own way, responsible. Who is to blame for NASA’s irrelevancy? It’s the person who likes to point fingers but fails to save one for themselves. The U.S. is a deeply divided nation and pretending that doesn’t extend to the nation’s space agency isn’t just ignorant, it’s intentionally dishonest. NASA became a political ping-pong ball because we let it.
Will this editorial make anyone consider their part in the death of NASA? Of course not. What will happen is individuals will point out what Bush got wrong or what they think Obama got right or how bad Trump is. It will never occur to them that maybe, just maybe, NASA’s passing was caused by us – all of us. So, what point is there in drafting this Op-Ed? It will likely only cause people to redouble their efforts to “prove” that their side is ‘right’ and the other side is ‘wrong.’ Having acknowledged that, it’s important, that it is publicly stated how both sides are responsible for the downfall of NASA.
Ad astra per aspera – propter rei publicae
The views expressed in this editorial, although sourced, are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.