April 16, 2010

Moon-Sized Hole in Obama's Space Vision

So close to a great plan, and yet so far away.

We don’t know the ins and outs of the space industry, but President Barack Obama’s speech at John F. Kennedy Space Center sounds good to us. The White House released its key points beforehand and we agree with every goal:

• Plan for a manned asteroid mission
• Development of a heavy lift rocket
• Goal of sending humans to Mars
• Restructuring the Orion vehicle
• Extend the life of the International Space Station

Doing is, of course, another story.

We recognize the Constellation program, like anything at NASA, was behind schedule. That may not be a valid enough reason to scrap it, but if Obama can create something better then go for it. As long as the US government provides sufficient oversight on private corporations, the partnership could flourish if a whole new industry is created.

Fail though and America will watch China, the EU, Russia, and India fly by.

But our focus lies elsewhere. Later on Obama correctly exposes a false choice: spending on America or space technology in a recession. We’re part of the same fight to breakdown NASA’s negative perception and hold an immeasurable value to space exploration. It’s one
of our main arguments.

“For me,” Obama says, “the space program has always captured an essential part of what it means to be an American - reaching for new heights, stretching beyond what previously did not seem possible. And so, as President, I believe that space exploration is not a luxury, it’s not an afterthought in America’s quest for a brighter future - it is an essential part of that quest.”

For that very reason we can’t avoid the massive hole in Obama’s space vision. Two fatal flaws: the Moon and money.

Does he really expect to explore the solar system and beyond from Earth, and without a major increase in funding? And why did he give the lamest excuse for not returning to the Moon? "I just have to say pretty bluntly - “we’ve been there before?

He knows this false choice isn’t the goal at all.

Ironically Neil Armstrong is working a counterproductive Moon campaign, allowing the conversation to devolve around a return trip rather than colonization and exploration. Armstrong was critical of Obama's new plan in a letter to combat his former co-pilot Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin won.

"The truth is that we have already been to the Moon – some 40 years ago," he wrote in his own letter published by the White House.

Both completely avoid the point. "There's a lot more of space to explore,” Obama argues. Obviously, so why does he say nothing is left to explore on the Moon?

All sorts of technology and resources await discovery and testing. Any sustainable habitat for Mars can be tested on the Moon at a closer and safer proximity to Earth. Early warning and defense systems can be constructed. Eventually lunar elevators could be constructed, the designs of which might be applied on Mars or back on Earth.

We can’t be making this up in our heads, Obama’s own statements correspond to lunar colonization.

“Fifty years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite. And in fulfilling this task, we will not only extend humanity’s reach in space - we will strengthen America’s leadership here on Earth.”

Exactly, the goal isn’t just to reach the Moon but to build sustainable and even indefinite habitats on it. Their construction must begin as soon as possible so that an advanced solar network is in place in 2110. Through habitats on the Moon and Mars, Earth’s space program can attempt to fulfill its ultimate potential.

To leave the Moon out of America’s space strategy is contradictory to the end. The goal isn’t to go to the Moon, but stay there and then go further.

“By 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start -- we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

Lunar installations, several of which being spaceports, would make sure he does.

That leads to the second and deeper problem with Obama’s plan - funding - and nowhere did his attitude bite him harder. Ego should have been suppressed in a politically, scientifically and economically charged environment, but ego has always been one of Obama’s weaknesses.

“What I hope is,” Obama says, “is that everybody will take a look at what we are planning, consider the details of what we’ve laid out, and see the merits as I’ve described them. The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am.”

We’ve analyzed his proposal impartially and, while believing in the need for several crucial additions, we support the rest of it. Obama’s proposal appears rational and he should have quit there. The line, “nobody is more committed to human exploration of space than I am,” is an irrational and desperate statement.

First, making such a distinction is impossible. Second, he’s putting himself ahead of people like Armstrong and Aldrin, who was committed enough to go to the Moon, and all those who make space travel possible. Third, he’s putting himself ahead of us, people throughout history and around the world who dream of space travel. And forth, though he believes otherwise, Obama isn’t putting his money where his mouth is.

Had he done so we might have let him slide.

“We’ll give you the resources to break through these barriers,” he tells us. “We’ll start by increasing NASA’s budget by $6 billion over the next five years, I want people to understand the context of this. This is happening even as we have instituted a freeze on discretionary spending and sought to make cuts elsewhere in the budget.”

Perhaps we’re being idealistic, but his “increase” is a joke. The person who cares more about space exploration than anyone else would put space exploration before everything else. Madness maybe, but suitable behavior for a die-hard. Obama just gambled an extra 40$ billion on top of 100$ billion for the war in Afghanistan.

That’s per year, not the next five, and just Afghanistan. There too Obama has declared no one is more concerned than he.

Can he be both? That person most committed to space exploration would give NASA a 50 or 100$ billion bonus to fund experiments and inventions yet to be imagined. Less than one year in Afghanistan to fund a century of discoveries. Real change would be a dramatic boom, not a gradual uptick.

America must prize discovery above warfare.

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