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The President’s Take on NASA’s Future: Mission to Nowhere February 1, 2010

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.

The president releases his FY 2011 budget today, and his policy for human spaceflight at NASA sets the nation on a course, not to the Moon or more distant destinations, but to an underfunded and second-class status in space. President Obama is declaring that human spaceflight is unimportant to U.S. national interests.

He’s not saying so directly. But his policies speak loudly. He will farm out the nation’s access to low-Earth orbit to commercial firms, none of which have built a human-rated booster or spacecraft. In the meantime, for at least five years, we will rent seats for our astronauts on Russian rockets.

NASA’s program to lift astronauts to the space station on the government-operated Ares I is to be canceled in favor of the commercial model. The Ares I follow-on, the heavy-lift Ares V, will apparently be tabled, too. That heavy launch capability is the key to exploring beyond LEO with astronauts. Its absence means the U.S. no longer wishes to send its explorers to the frontiers of knowledge and space-faring skill. Other nations, like China, will assume that leadership role.

A little history: NASA has lost more than 25% of its budget buying power in the past 20 years. Despite those cuts, the agency managed to operate the shuttle and build the International Space Station (ISS). But it lacked a long-term goal in space, and that lack of direction and a future limited to low-Earth orbit led in part to the Columbia accident in 2003 that killed seven of my colleagues. Now, seven years later, the president’s budget shows that he and NASA have forgotten the lessons of Columbia once again. Without a goal worthy of the serious risks of human spaceflight, we will be putting our astronauts in danger (on foreign rockets, yet) to do nothing more than crew a research outpost. I don’t think that activity is worth the risk, or worthy of the sacrifices we ask our astronauts to make.

The president inherited a Constellation program (return to the Moon and deep space) that was underfunded by more than 35% since announced by President Bush in 2004. The previous president never supported the vision of his original announcement, so that today Constellation is badly behind schedule. That schedule stretchout also raised costs for the development of the shuttle’s successor rocket, Ares I. Yet its first stage was flight-tested successfully last October. Restored funding could have put this rocket in service to ISS by 2015.

The president’s budget, announced today, does away with Ares I. The shuttle will retire late this year with no replacement on the horizon. American astronauts will rent seats on Russian rockets headed to the ISS. The new budget’s promise to fund commercial rockets to do this job is premature: none of the cargo rockets NASA has contracted for ISS transport has flown, and betting our nation’s access to space on an unproven commercial capsule is unwise. NASA should fly its new Orion as quickly as possible, then move to commercial substitutes once those firms have proven themselves with reliable cargo services. Today, though, the president canceled Orion.

Even worse, the cancellation of Constellation replaces the Ares V heavy-lift rocket with “research and development” on building such a vehicle, someday. Without such a Saturn V-class launcher, Americans will never get out of low Earth orbit (where we have been marooned for nearly 40 years). The president’s advisers have now placed the U.S. on a par with other countries that can reach low Earth orbit. Soon, China will surpass that capability, and is now a clear favorite to be the next nation to send its explorers into deep space. We will watch, helpless to follow.

The cancellation of Constellation without clear endorsement of a goal to send humans on a date certain into deep space postpones the promise of the future for the brightest of our young scientists and engineers. The space talent pool will begin emptying today, as promising innovators seek careers in other industries. What student would pursue a career in space science or astronautics with the knowledge that the country is turning away from leadership in space? One piece of evidence is that during the height of the shuttle program in the 1990s, we flew nearly 50 astronauts per year into orbit for science and defense missions. Starting next year, and for the foreseeable future, we will launch just 4 Americans into space annually, as passengers on foreign rockets, to a space station slated to be decommissioned in 2020. What will Americans do in space beyond that gloomy date?

The new budget, announced today, seems merely an attempt to disguise the demise of U.S. leadership in space. There are words endorsing human spaceflight, but too little funding backing up that commitment. Our capability in space, by design, will now be no better than Russia’s, China’s or India’s.

The president appointed his Augustine Committee to review the nation’s human spaceflight plans. He accepted their option to move our human access to space to a commercial footing, with great uncertainty as to safety, schedule, and cost. The nation has no back-up plan if this effort fails.

But President Obama’s advisors rejected the most important of the Augustine observations, that a great nation must fund an exploration program worthy of the name. The Committee called for an extra $3 billion per year for human exploration. The president’s team has rejected this single most important recommendation. We cannot lead in space or explore on a shoestring. By providing a budget boost that barely exceeds inflation, the administration is choosing a second-class space program for the nation. Although $787 billion was “available” last year for “stimulus,” finding $3 billion this year to stimulate our high-tech economy and talent pool, and rectify past underfunding, proved impossible.

Today’s budget actions will be rightfully seen as a retreat from U.S. leadership in space.



1. future - February 2, 2010

it breaks my heart so much

2. Ernesto Acosta - February 2, 2010

I may be wrong but, the ARES program had a few set-backs and SpaceX was developing something with a similar mission (resupply to ISS) and at times, on their own dime. If the ARES I program has sufficient merit, then perhaps one (ATK, LMCO, etc) would consider adopting this project (funding) for deveopment and subsequent implementation.

The trust bestowed upon SpaceX is enormous. They are likely to cross the inevitable imperfection resulting in one very bad day. Boeing, LMCO, ATK and all obviously do not consider this risk acceptable.

You have all the right Senators and Representatives supporting your position. Either way, we intend to push Aerospace capability forward to the next logical step.

Yes, people will die for supporting SpaceX’s development of Falcon and Dragon. I admire and support those who take these risks.


skywalking1 - February 2, 2010

Ares I was certainly not ideal. It was struggling to boost enough Orion mass to LEO, and would not have met lunar requirements. But it could have reached the ISS for a few years until another solution arrived, limiting our reliance on Russia. Commercial services have a lot to learn. They should prove themselves by cargo service first, then crew services post-2015. Today, we could have boosted funding for Ares I and Orion, improved management, and gotten something out of our investment of $9 billion. Now we start over, headed down an uncertain and dangerous path. We’re losing not only money, but the lost time until yet another new plan can be devised by the next administration.

The saddest casualty is the non-partisan support of NASA seen since Columbia. Now the administration has tied NASA’s future to its vision of reversing the Bush Constellation plan.

3. THOMAS - February 2, 2010

In 1962, President Kennedy called for us to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. !n 1969, we were there. He demonstrated his profound vision. Now Obama’s syncophants used a lot of verbage like game-changing to disguise Obama’s lack of vision. We are condemned to ramaining in LEO. Others will take up the challenge that Obama has abadoned. The next person on the moon will be a Chineese Astrunaut. It is worth the risk to human life to launch only to the Intenational Space Station.

4. President’s Take On NASA’s Future: Mission to Nowhere « AmericaSpace - February 2, 2010

[…] a great piece, The President’s Take On NASA’s Future: Mission to Nowhere, former astronaut Tom Jones makes a good case that the new policy announced by the White House is, […]

5. Martin Sulkanen - February 4, 2010

Looking at the 2011-2015 budget overview it’s clear that manned space has lost its decades-long battle with the robotic science-explorer advocates in NASA and in the academic community.

6. zereo_g_tear - February 4, 2010

I grew up with mecury, gemini, apollo. My children were weaned on the shuttle program. There is no doubt that ISS is a worthy mission, technology must be given an opportunity to mature. Orion was a compromise, it was part of an poorly conceived never properly funded program to generate votes. The lack of forward thinking management at NASA should be examined. After ~ thirty years of flying the shuttle, there is no excuse that we as a country should find ourselves dependent on others for the leap out of the gravity well. I say “help the independents”, the American trait to lead/explore/grow is not dead, slightly off center maybe, but that’s another topic.

7. Paul Novak - February 6, 2010

Well said. You made several points better than I have been able to. I have been railing about this since I first read it. I consider it Obama’s first real blunder, and unfortunately, he makes his first one, of epic proportions. Our Space Program, and human launch capability is what has done more to keep us at the forefront of space and world technology since we reached the moon.

This decision is guaranteed to reduce us to second class status, and act as a corrosive agent eating at the foundation of our dominance on the world stage. I’ve been writing about this on my blog and on forums, and I am sad to say, so far the concensus I have been seeing has done little more than illustrate our society’s serious lack of science comprehension.

8. Matt Heikell - February 6, 2010

Dr. Jones,

Over the past week I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, ULA, and other friends outside of aerospace about the upcoming changes we may see for NASA’s future. I myself work as an aerospace engineer for United Launch Alliance and I have to say I’m probably just as biased as all the other people I’ve talked to. It’s clear that within the aerospace industry one is for or against the new proposals depending on which side of the money stream you’re on. Lockheed engineers working on Orion are upset and worried. Others are looking forward to new opportunities in the future. ULA is still committed to our current mission of launching satellites for our government, NASA, and commercial customers which we have and are continuing to prove we can do successfully. To say that commercial companies cannot launch successfully or safely is nearly an insult. I also find it ironic that in the Commercial vs. NASA debate, everyone seems to forget that Lockheed Martin and Boeing are both commercial companies looking to make a profit. When people say that commercial companies may not be successful launching humans into space I like to point out that the Saturn V was developed by engineers at Boeing, North American, Douglas, and IBM; the Shuttle was developed by engineers at Lockheed Martin (Martin Marietta), Boeing (Rockwell), and ATK; Ares was developed by engineers at ATK and Boeing with Orion coming from Lockheed Martin. All of these companies, and now ULA, have 50 years of experience in this field. To presuppose that the new direction makes SpaceX and Orbital Sciences America’s next launch vehicle manufacturer is frankly quite ridiculous.

NASA is underfunded and has been asked to do too much with too little. I don’t see that changing any time soon when the constituents of the officials in office view space as an unworthy expenditure. I sometimes wish NASA had a better marketing team to push their annual “Spinoff” magazine. Regardless, NASA is not failing to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers because it won’t have its own launch vehicle; NASA lost that decades ago because it wasn’t doing anything new. To blame that on the current administration is not fair. However, the new direction for NASA, working with commercial partners, can still inspire. I will use myself as an example: I am 25 and did not choose a degree and career in aerospace engineering because of NASA. I did it because I grew up in Washington State and companies like Boeing were right next door. Only later in school did I choose space instead of aviation. I feel pride in NASA not because they do the incredible (though they do), but simply because they are American, just the same as Lockheed, Boeing, and ULA are American. Whether or not this generation and all the ones that follow will be inspired by space exploration is more dependent on if it happens than the badge warn on the right shoulder of the astronauts; the left shoulder will still carry the same flag.

I don’t see this as the end of manned space flight but an opportunity for restructuring and creating a focused goal for NASA. Unless somehow NASA gets all the money it could ever hope to spend, this may be the best course for an American presence in space. Yes, I agree that NASA needs to lead and reach out to the next frontier such as the moon and Mars, but it had 40 years to do so and has failed. Instead NASA can lead by developing a commercial base to travel to LEO and once successful lead on to the next destination. Developing the commercial and economic base that serves LEO would greatly enhance the standing of space travel among the public and elected officials. Then when it’s time to move on to the moon, NASA will again be the pioneers teaching the rest of the industry how to get there. The same would follow for Mars, asteroids, and possibly further. If the reasoning to go to the moon and Mars is simply to understand and put astronauts there, the American public will say, “So what?” I would like the reasoning to be that we want all people to be able to see space some day. NASA is not and never again will be in the business of taking everyday people to space, but what can you say you understand about space if the only people who are going to see it are a select few highly trained astronauts?


Matt Heikell

skywalking1 - February 6, 2010

Dear Mr. Heikell:

You know I am in favor of commercial LEO services after they have a proven record of cargo delivery. Companies go out of business or drop the business line if they don’t make a profit, and if we don’t have a backup (some national ability to reach orbit), we will be cut off from our own space station. The right management move was to restructure our LEO-access efforts while waiting for commercial to prove itself. Then NASA could have moved on to deep space with LEO access safely in commercial hands. Fly all the tourists and private astronauts you want — I applaud it!

The reason to go to deep space is to access the economic resources there, and enable the commercial entrepreneurs to build business and industry there. They won’t have the capital to access those resources on their own.

The president should have delivered a reasonable level of resources to NASA, as the Augustine Committee recommended. We can afford that 0.5% of the federal budget (it’s the other wasted resources that equal 40 times the NASA budget we can’t afford). The consequences will be real and negative: lost jobs immediately, and a shrinking aerospace talent pool (and fewer engineers and scientists in the pipeline) down the road. NASA has a mission — to show U.S. leadership in space. Science is one area, but it is not sufficient to bring tens of thousands of engineers and scientists together to energize our economy and future innovators.


9. Henry - February 6, 2010

It’s high time human spaceflight was put on a short leash. Other than servicing the Hubble Telescope, NASA hasn’t had a good reason to put people into space since the Apollo project. I say stop pouring money into the “wow effect” of Buck Rodgers’ projects and concentrate on robotic missions to increase our knowledge of other worlds in our solar system. The machines already do the science work in the ISS. People are just along for the ride, and an enormously expensive ride it is. The unmanned probes don’t need to breathe, eat, sleep or potty. It is a no brainer to take the humans out of the loop – a grotesque waste of resources.

10. donnie - February 6, 2010

Augustine found both Ares rockets would be too expensive to build and run. NASA now says they want something better than the 1970s technology they would be built on. And they both think smart US engineers at smart US rocket companies are capable of building safe rockets to given NASA cost, schedule, and safety standards. All that makes sense to me.

I think your real problem is with the budget. Congress has not funded the budget you want since a martyred president called the country to defeat the enemy of the world. I think it is time to accept that today is not like that day and neither will tomorrow be. Accept that money, not safety or technology, is the primary constraint on work in space.

Then you may agree that the only future of beyond-LEO human activity is in something less expensive than previous endeavors.

skywalking1 - February 7, 2010

You may be right on the budget for space. This presidential decision has set up a debate to find out. Oh, and I didn’t pursue spaceflight to honor JFK. I do believe we will truly see the value of leading in exploration when the Chinese communists surpass us. Investing now in retaining the capability we have (including commercial) will be cheaper than a crisis response later.

skywalking1 - February 7, 2010

You’re correct that our LEO access and heavy lifter must be affordable. Constellation should have been restructured — not cancelled — to accomplish that.


11. SG - February 7, 2010

Bravo Obama for derailing the pork chop express. Perhaps now the private sector can achieve what NASA has failed to do in its 58 year history, build a commercially viable transport system to LEO. Face facts the Russians and Europeans have been eating our lunch for decades in the launch business. We knew the Hangar Queen was a failure long before the Challenger blew up, and as for the Orbiting Pork Barrel its the wrong design, in the wrong orbit, with the wrong mission. High time we gave it to the Russians, so they can move and modify it for on orbit vehicle assembly, repair and refueling. We can use the money saved to build our own using the technology NASA sold to Bigelow. We should fund the development of a modular OTV and Moon/Mars lander the can be assembled, refueled, and refurbished on orbit. However visiting and utilizing NEO resources should be a higher priority, why go down a well when its raining soup in flat space. The private sector can do it cheaper because they don’t have to hand out 538 pork chops every time they need a dime. NASA should also stop rah rahing about Apollo it just makes us sad.

skywalking1 - February 7, 2010

The president is anti-pork?

12. red - February 7, 2010

“He will farm out the nation’s access to low-Earth orbit to commercial firms, none of which have built a human-rated booster or spacecraft.”

Doing this is part of the Vision for Space Exploration (at least for the rocket), Aldridge Commission recommendations, and all of the realistic Augustine Committee options. All of them featured much, much more commercial participation than the POR. One of the main points of the VSE (before Griffin removed the VSE) was commercial participation.

Almost all of U.S. rocket-building experience is in private industry (eg: ULA, Orbital, SpaceX, etc). NASA’s rocket-building experience is from so long ago that most of the people are no longer there. One of Griffin’s justifications for Ares I was to rebuild NASA’s rocket-building experience.

For the spacecraft … I think a good argument could be made for something derived from Orion on commercial rockets, so I think a debate with the current NASA position could be had (although I tend slightly to agree with their position).

“In the meantime, for at least five years, we will rent seats for our astronauts on Russian rockets”

That’s probably true, but the gap would be even greater using Ares I, according to the Augustine/Aerospace Corporation assessment. The Ares I schedule has been slipping faster than time has been going by since it started.

“underfunded and second-class status in space”

I’d like to see more funding, now that it looks like the funding will go to productive things, but that’s probably not politically possible with any Administration or Congress. We will have funding trouble until we get entitlement spending under control, and I doubt that will happen.

We will still have first-class status in space. The gap is troubling, but it’s actually shrunk with this change (per Augustine). It was caused mainly by the unrealistic Ares I plan. Other than that, many things are vastly improved in the new plan compared to the POR, and keep us in very good shape.

“That heavy launch capability is the key to exploring beyond LEO with astronauts”

I think we’ve beaten our heads on the heavy lift wall too much. It was cancelled with Apollo. With Constellation we are on track for getting heavy lift in 2028 or so, but with nothing to put in it until much later. I think we need to work on affordable lift rather than heavy lift, since heavy lift is crushing our budget. Assembly and fuel depots should be given a chance.

At any rate, the current plan starts heavy lift R&D soon. The POR left serious heavy lift until ~2016.

skywalking1 - February 7, 2010

Our space program represents us in an external world where peoples judge us on our achievements or lack thereof. Declaring ourselves a leader has little credibility without national access to LEO and, in a few years, the ability to leave LEO. Other nations will demonstrate that capability and inform us if our spending on space has been adequate. Rather than a crisis response in the future, a stable funding profile aiming at heavy lift and beyond LEO, instituted now, would enable us to trump any competitor.


13. red - February 7, 2010

“The previous president never supported the vision of his original announcement”

Bush supported the Vision for Space Exploration, which was nothing like Constellation. The VSE had serious commercial and international participation, a strong robotic precursor program, goals centered on economic, security, and science benefits, an approach centered on sustainability of the effort, and lots of technology innovation. In other words, although the Obama people probably won’t say this, the VSE was similar to the current budget proposal — although possibly with a different sequence of destinations (which is apparently TBD in the new version). The VSE was roughly the opposite of Constellation. Once the VSE was replaced with Constellation, Bush seemed to lose interest. To tell the truth, I don’t blame him. In fact I did too in late 2005.

“Yet its first stage was flight-tested successfully last October.”

The Ares 1-X first stage was basically existing Shuttle hardware. It was not what was planned for Ares I. Areas 1-X is very different from Ares I – one reason why Ares I really is so far from being operational.

“The new budget’s promise to fund commercial rockets to do this job is premature: none of the cargo rockets NASA has contracted for ISS transport has flown, and betting our nation’s access to space on an unproven commercial capsule is unwise.”

The commercial COTS rockets are ahead of Ares I. If relying on them is premature, relying on Ares I is even more premature. Real Falcon 9 hardware is almost ready (not Ares 1-X dummy tests). The COTS vendors may have setbacks, but they really are closer than Ares I. Augustine was skeptical of them, too, but even so predicted they’d be online with crew before Ares I. The EELVs also have a good track record. All of these have a great advantage over Ares I in that they would have lots of demonstrations of their quality (good or bad) before putting crew on them, and they would all be used for other purposes than crew and thus have lots of chances for any failure happening in non-crew launches. Ares I has very few test flights and if a problem does happen, it will be with crew on board.

“cancellation of Constellation without clear endorsement of a goal to send humans on a date certain into deep space”

I would like to see more details in the beyond-LEO plan. However, I think that plan will come. The missions may not happen soon, but it wasn’t going to happen soon with the POR, either. Lunar visits were probably around 2035-2040 with the POR. Having a goal of 2020 doesn’t seem to have done us much good.

Personally, I’d like us to “establish a beyond-LEO beachhead” at GEO, E-M Lagrange points, and lunar orbit using existing rockets in the short term (i.e. we already have the ISS, so go from there to these destinations). I think we could do that in this decade, build some man-tended infrastructure, and still do the other things in the current budget if costs are shared with commercial and international partners. Later destinations could wait for results from robotic precursors and R&D. Howeer, we will have to see more details of NASA’s new plans. I’m as impatient as anyone to see them.

“What student would pursue a career in space science or astronautics with the knowledge that the country is turning away from leadership in space?”

There are many advantages with the current plan that should attract students. ISS is now actually going to be used, and will stay to 2020 or later. There is now lots of R&D and technology development. Some of that could be quite exciting to students. Space science and robotics are saved from Constellation budget overruns, and there is now a much stronger robotic HSF precursor program. Many students work in the numerous academic disciplines that use Earth observation data, and that is strengthened. Many students are interested in business, and the space business/economic opportunities with the new approach are much greater, since the commercial services can be used for non-NASA work.

The POR, even if it had a $3B/year budget increase, resulted in no technology development (it was one of the things Griffin got rid of to fund Constellation), no serious use of ISS, and ISS in the ocean in 2015 … and it resulted in Ares I in service after ISS destruction and no ability to do much else than go to ISS, Ares V ready in the late 2020’s with nothing to put in it … i.e. decades of no HSF. That’s what we’d get with the POR even with the big Augustine budget increase.

skywalking1 - February 7, 2010

I did not support continuing the program of record. I like the flexible path journey to NEOs, with a budget adequate to reach milestones within a human or career lifetime.

In future posts, all, please state your name; anonymous posts are not fair to this audience. Put it out there.


14. Peter - February 15, 2010

The elected representatives,,wise men all,,will now get a chance to review the budget message that effectively puts a stake through the heat of NASAs manned space program. One wonders what their reaction will be on the day China and India land humans back on the Moon…..I can just imagine all the fingerpointing and “I didnt vote for that” we will hear…..Send a message to you Representatives if you support and strong and healthy Manned Space Program for Americas future…….

15. Planet Moron - March 30, 2010

NASA: National Automobile Scientist Association….

The Obama administration has asked NASA to examine the unintended acceleration problems plaguing Toyota and we look forward to our nation’s finest space scientists applying their unique expertise to the dilemma. Of course, you still need to find a way….

16. 2010 in review « Astronaut Tom Jones: Flight Notes - January 3, 2011

[…] The busiest day of the year was February 2nd with 598 views. The most popular post that day was The President’s Take on NASA’s Future: Mission to Nowhere. […]

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