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Constellation on the chopping block

What's the big deal?

Background on the Constellation Project

Problems with the program

Time for a change?

Putting the debate in context
    Historical context
    Impacts of privatization
    Response to Obama's plan


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Putting the debate in context
Balancing the promises and perils of commercialization

"The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago, to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead.  By buying the services of space transportation -- rather than the vehicles themselves -- we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met." - President Barack Obama

"If Congress approves [Obama’s cuts to the Constellation Program], NASA astronauts will be stuck riding in commercial space taxis.” Sawato Das, in a New York Times op-ed

The historical context: Traditional arguments for and against NASA

The question facing Americans today is whether they want human spaceflight controlled by their government, or by private sector interests. The important parts of that debate can be traced back to historic arguments for and against NASA. There has always been factions who state that there are more pressing problems here on Earth, and that the billions of dollars funneled into NASA projects like the Mars Rover, which got stuck and was unable to accomplish the things it was sent out to do, could go to social programs and other more terrestrial concerns, something the President acknowledged in his April address at the Space Conference in Florida (Remarks by the President). Between the tragic loss of the Challenger and Columbia crews in recent years and the staggering cost increases involved in the space program, it has always seemed poltically easier to put the program on the backburner. The move to make it some private company’s responsibility is in essence a new iteration of previous attempts to avoid dealing with NASA's percieved floundering and lack of mission.

These arguments have long been countered by those who say that the long history of scientific and technological advancements that have stemmed from NASA’s exploration. President Bush acknowledged that the costs are great, but so are the benefits:

Like the explorers of the past and the pioneers of flight in the last century, we cannot today identify all that we will gain from space exploration; we are confident, nonetheless, that the eventual return will be great. Like their efforts, the success of future U.S. space exploration will unfold over generations. (“A renewed spirit of discovery”)

Impacts of privatization: Who's involved, and what do they want?

Last year, President Obama asked a commission to explore the future of NASA human spaceflights. The group, headed up by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, arrived at the conclustion that the "unsustainable trajectory" the agency was on could not be continued, and that allowing private industry to be more involved in the shuttle process was a possible way to keep costs more under control ("NASA Braces for Course Correction.")

One of the big questions, of course, is who are these private companies that are apparently so desperate to swoop in and take responsibility for the US human spaceflight program? Meet Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX. Musk, who established his fortune by co-founding PayPal and then selling it to eBay, has garnered a lot of attention over the last several months for his promises that his start up company can fill that gap cheaper and more effectively than NASA can ("Adding Rocket Man to his Resume".) The Falcon 9 rockets his company has developed have had several successful tests, and are equipped to carry cargo to the International Space Station. They're still not ready for crew transports, but they claim they will be ready for their maiden flight by the end of 2010 ("Adding Rocket Man to his Resume.)

Video: Time Magazine interview with Elon Musk, SpaceX founder - Space: The Private Frontier

For some, this seems like the ideal solution to many of NASA's lingering problems. In an article in the New York Times about Obama's plan, John Tierney wrote that "traditional aerospace companies remain leery of the plans... but there are other upstarts besides SpaceX working on project to get humans into space." He continues that with responsibility for trips moving astronauts and cargo back and forth from Earth to the International Space Station, NASA would be able to focus on developing the far more advanced technologies needed to enable travel far beyond Earth's orbit ("NASA, we've got a problem. But it can be fixed.") Some early concerns, such as what will happen to American space presence during the intervening years between the end of NASA's human spaceflight efforts and the handoff to private companies as well as the potential dangers of having third parties responsible for the safety of American astronauts, have been overshadowed to a degree by the promise that the change would enable NASA to focus on bigger and better things while cutting costs. "NASA would be better served to spend its money on going beyond Earth orbit rather than running a trucking service to low Earth orbit," said Augustine in a press conference discussing the panel's findings ("NASA Braces for Course Correction.")

Criticism of Obama's proposal to cut Constellation

A big part of achieving America's space goals in the “smart way” President Obama talks about is putting responsibility in the hands of the private sector, and not everyone has been so happy to go along with the plan. Sawato Das, a technology and science writer, described the decision’s impact critically in a New York Times op-ed. “If Congress approves it [Obama’s cuts to the Constellation Program], NASA astronauts will be stuck riding in commercial space taxis,” he wrote ("Farewell to NASA’s Glory Days"). These concerns were echoed in Congressional discussions, with many representatives raising questions about whether the shift from government control of human spaceflight to commercial control will negatively impact American prestige. Responding to NASA Administrator Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, Jr., Rep. David Wu, a Democrat from Oregon, said he has been against privatization from the start, and questioned how much profit there was to be made by private companies in the space business. “I would encourage the administration and your agency to consider whether this is premature, whether this is wise and whether this dooms us to a future where there are no Americans in space, or at least the dominant language in space is not English,” he said (“Under Fire, Administrator Defends NASA’s New Direction”). Representatives were also concerned at the lack of Bolden’s knowledge about the viability of commercial space programs, reinforcing the concern that the change was too abrupt (“Under Fire, Administrator Defends NASA’s New Direction”).

There has also been strong criticism from politicians whose constituencies are more concerned with the Earth-bound parts of the human space program. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson( R-Texas), has vociferously protested the change, saying that the plan kills jobs – Texas is home to the Johnson Space Center - and that “America’s decades-long dominance of space will finally come to an end” (“Obama’s plans for NASA changes met with harsh criticism”). Senators and representatives from Florida, Colorado, and other states impacted by the change have responded similarly.

Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) had some strong criticisms of the President's decision. Speaking to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science in April 2010, Hatch protested the move on the grounds that it would essentially throw away the $9 billion already invested in the Constellation Project, the loss of jobs and national presige would be significant, and the plan relies on "utilizing unproven private businesses as the means to transport our astronauts to the International Space Station." He added, "It also should be noted, many of the companies which are expected to bid for these contracts are start-ups. These new start-ups do not have any experience in carrying humans, or even cargo, into space. In addition, even under these corporations’ most optimistic near-term proposals, their systems will not be able to travel beyond low-Earth orbit" (Hatch Predicts Dire Consequences)

Some of the most prominent members of the space community have also come out against cutting Constellation. In an open letter to the President, Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Eugene Cernan, all commanders of Apollo missions, warned that private industry does not yet have the capabilities to operate human spaceflights and that the decision to turn the program over to them without their being ready leaves the United States in a difficult position.They wrote, 

"For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.  While the President's plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years" (Astronauts: Obama Nasa Plan "Devastating")

The two camps seem to be divided along the question of whether cutting costs and redirecting NASA's priorities away from overseeing human spaceflight is worth the potential loss of prestige in the lag time during the hand off, and whether the private sector can do the job as safely, and without losing the traditional focus on space science for the human good.


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Last updated:  5/7/2010


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