Friday, March 19, 2010

Nelson, Cabana Speak at Latest Space Forum

As a Congressman in January 1986, Bill Nelson flew aboard Columbia on a Shuttle mission.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and KSC Director Bob Cabana were the guest speakers at today's Space Forum hosted by Florida Today at Brevard Community College.

Click here to read the paper's report on the forum.

I found this meeting far more sober and honest than the March 9 Space Forum, with four speakers who all had previously announced some degree of opposition to Obama and/or the Administration's proposed FY 2011 NASA budget.

Nelson, unfortunately, engaged in a bit of pandering just as have local Congressional representatives Suzanne Kosmas and Bill Posey, both of whom have promised additional Shuttle flights, a continuation of Constellation, and various other promises they can't unilaterally keep. Nelson said the Senate would direct NASA to develop a heavy-lifter rocket capable of flight beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The problem with that is one U.S. Senator cannot order NASA to do anything.

I was also disappointed that Nelson failed to directly answer a question from the audience about why little has been done over the last six years to help diversify the local economy after President Bush cancelled the Shuttle program in January 2004. Nelson instead gave a long answer about chronic underfunding for NASA, which has little to do with the lack of local leadership in attracting business not linked to the government's space program.

Nelson also said he was writing legislation that seems to try to force commercial launchers to use only Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, an idea proposed in a Florida Today editorial on March 11. Nelson admitted it's probably illegal but he's going ahead anyway, which suggests it's simply more pandering — not to mention anti-capitalistic.

The senator was asked several times for details about his recent meetings with Obama to discuss the NASA budget proposal. Although he didn't reveal many specifics of what was a private conversation, he did imply that Obama might be flexible on the budget, although he couldn't promise anything.

Obama is due in Florida on April 15 to hold his own space summit, presumably in the Space Coast although nothing has been officially announced. One thing is for certain is that he'll be expected to address his August 2008 campaign promise to ensure that "all those who work in the space industry in Florida do not lose their jobs when the Shuttle is retired because we cannot afford to lose their expertise."

I doubt anything Obama says on April 15 will satisfy the locals. Brevard County voted 54% to 44% for John McCain over Obama in 2008, and has 20,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats (42.9% to 37.2% of registered voters at the end of 2009).

But whatever action he takes should be for the good of the United States, not just for one county. I'm concerned that Kosmas, Posey and Nelson don't see it that way.

Of the three, I think Nelson's vision is broadest. He understands Obama's desire to commercialize LEO access so funds can be freed up to develop a heavy-lifter capable of extraterrestrial missions. Yet at the same time he talks about spending money on programs that may protect jobs while not necessarily being in the long-term best interest of the nation's human space program. Kosmas and Posey just talk about more of the status quo without addressing the core issue, namely that outside of the space centers there's little political support to spend more money on projects that are behind schedule, over budget and not viewed as a national priority.

At least Nelson today was somewhat honest about his Senate colleagues not sharing his view of human space exploration as a national priority. Neither Kosmas or Posey have admitted the same, to my knowledge.


  1. I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the manned space flight program(s) will be coming to an end. I think that we are obligated to support the ISS until 2016, but Obama will be gone by then. I think that the US may well abandon it after 2016 unless there is some other project that will depend on ISS research. The public is already skeptical. In fact I heard the tail end of a program on POTUS on XM the other day, where someone was saying that the Federal government should not fund any research; that private enterprise should do it. So much for basic science it that happens.

  2. I don't think that at all.

    Obviously I do a lot of reading on the Internet as part of the research for the articles I write. I'm realizing just how many different nations are interested in space, whether it's human flight, satellites or cargo.

    Obama realizes that it makes a lot more sense to have nations collaborate and work as partners. Not only is it good for peace in that those nations share a common investment, but from a practicality standpoint it shares the costs so one nation doesn't have such a large financial burden.

    When he speaks here on April 15, I think that's one thing he'll say. We need to expand our relationships, just as we did with ISS, to share both the expense and the benefits of space exploration.

    I'm really surprised and a little disappointed by the jingoistic posts I read on Florida Today by those who claim outrage that American astronauts have to fly on Russian craft, or that Chinese might one day walk on the Moon. That's just plain silly. The Russians have a very long and successful track record with LEO launches. And by treaty, the Moon belongs to the international community.

    I think there may be a tendency to confuse the exploration with the vehicle. Looking back through human history, any significant advancement in transportation history had a government component (e.g. Queen Isabella helping to finance Columbus' exploration for a new route to India). Whether it was a sea-faring vessel, an airplane or a spacecraft, governments were involved at the origin but inevitably the private sector took over.

    That's what Obama is trying to start now, to get us to let loose of the government monopoly so in the long run more of humanity can have access to space. We may not see it in our lifetimes, but 100 years from now it's reasonable to assume we'll have a number of permanent private space stations in orbit, a permanent lunar colony, and humans will have walked on Mars.

    I don't see why it matters whether the vehicle they used to get there has a U.S. flag, a Russian flag, or a SpaceX logo on it. So long as they get there.