April 15, 2010 — President Obama delivers a space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: NASA.
Most space advocates would like to see the next Administration give a Kennedy-esque Moon speech, double the NASA budget and build Starfleet.
That will not happen.
It wouldn't have happened if Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama yesterday. Romney's campaign issued a position paper in September which stated, "A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities. Romney will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions."
During the Florida Republican primary, Newt Gingrich proposed the eventual goal of a private sector initiative to build a lunar colony. Romney replied, "If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired.'"
When he campaigned in Cape Canaveral during the primary, Romney declined the opportunity to articulate a specific policy. He'd just appoint a committee to study it.
Space was not a priority for Romney.
Obama's critics have said the same of him, but the record is quite the opposite.
The President came twice to Kennedy Space Center during this first term.
The first was on April 15, 2010, when he articulated his space policy in an event at the Operations & Checkout Building. Obama also toured the SpaceX facilities at the Cape's Launch Complex 40.
April 29, 2011 — President Obama and family are shown an orbiter's thermal protection component. Image source: NASA.
He returned in April 2011, hoping to attend the STS-134 launch. It was scrubbed, so his family met with the crew and toured an Orbiter Processing Facility.
Some of us — me included — have hoped for more, but given the politics of the times that was wishful thinking.
So it's on to another four years, and I'm going to indulge in a little prognostication.
NASA and the rest of the government are held hostage by the hanging sword of sequestration. Let's not forget that the Fiscal Year 2013 budget still hasn't been passed, even though FY13 began on October 1. The government is operating on a continuing resolution, essentially extending the last fiscal year's funding authorization until a new budget is passed.
Outside of space advocates and the space-industrial complex, no one thinks the NASA budget is a priority in these times.
Most likely by early 2013 all this will have been resolved, and NASA's funding for the remainder of the current fiscal year will be defined. Some cuts are likely — but let's be clear that budgets and funding authorizations are determined by Congress, not the President.
Most of the members of Congress responsible for NASA's current budget mess are still in office. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) retired. She was the prime proponent of the Space Launch System. Dubbed the "Senate Launch System" by its critics, the SLS has no missions or destinations. Created by Congress in 2010, its proponents argued that it retained a government-owned heavy-lift capability for NASA, even though NASA has no use for it.
Congress directed NASA to propose to Congress potential uses. In August, NASA delivered that report, but since then Congress has done nothing with it — as expected. It's possible the next Congressional session might act differently, but I think that unlikely.
SLS critics across the Internet have speculated that sequestration might lead to its demise, but I doubt it. SLS was created specifically to protect voters' jobs in the states and districts of those on the Congressional space subcommittees, and most of those representatives are still in place. With Senator Hutchison out of the way, that leaves Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who comfortably won re-election last night. So did Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who directs government pork to ATK. Richard Shelby of Alabama is mid-term and therefore wasn't up for a vote.
The last Congress was more inclined to cut funding for commercial crew, which meant continued reliance upon the Russian Soyuz for International Space Station access. Hutchison peddled the notion that it was a choice between SLS and "NewSpace" although that false perception existed only in her head.
Commercial crew companies SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada have said publicly they hope to better NASA's estimate that commercial crew won't be certified until 2017. SpaceX would seem the best bet for a 2015 flight, although any accident with commercial cargo will cost them the lead.
Rather than looking at NASA's bottom line, I think space advocates need to look at the total amount spent on space access by both the government and the private sector. If you lump NASA's budget with NewSpace spending, then overall space funding is way up.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on November 2, as the orbiter Atlantis moves to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Image source: NASA.
As for NASA leadership, I expect that administrator Charles Bolden will retire. I have enormous respect for General Bolden. In my opinion, he's probably the best administrator NASA has had since James Webb. He is a kind, decent and honest person burdened with convincing Congressional porkers to change their ways. At age 66, four years of that nonsense is enough for anyone.
Internet rumor-mongers have claimed in recent days that Bolden had a fallout with Obama. I ignore Internet rumors, especially when their source can be traced back to the same rumor-monger.
Webb and John F. Kennedy didn't get along either. Kennedy found Webb personally annoying, as Webb tended to babble. In a November 21, 1962 meeting with Webb, the President snapped at the administrator, reminding him that the Moon program wasn't about exploration, it was about prestige. But Kennedy backed Webb in inter-agency battles and gave Webb the final authority in critical decisions for accomplishing the lunar landing.
I doubt that Deputy Administrator Lori Garver will be promoted. I knew Lori years ago, when she was executive director of the National Space Society. She is extremely personable, and I think she's an effective public face for NASA. But I doubt the NASA bureaucracy or Congress would respect a NASA administrator lacking a strong technical background.
My guess is that the Obama administration will look for another astronaut to run NASA, or if you want a dark horse someone from the NewSpace industry. Congress is unlikely to respect a NewSpace executive, so look for a former blue suit.
Shuttle-era astronaut Mark Kelly, commander of STS-134 and husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, could be a candidate. He recently published an opinion column endorsing the Obama space policy. But his priority is helping his wife with her recovery from the assassination attempt. If you read his book Gabby, he doesn't seem to have the patience for political shenanigans, although he's stepped forward in recent months to support Obama.
I'd like to see the President articulate a space vision that's based not on destination, but on popularizing access to space. I wrote about this in a September 18, 2012 column titled, "The New Economy". This vision articulates a space program based not on collecting Mars dust or more Moon rocks, but on growing the U.S. economy by exploiting low Earth orbit. As I wrote in that article, space will be the next Gold Rush, and the gold is the absence of gravity.
All the pieces are in place for that Gold Rush. It's a vision that doesn't require massive government spending, just forming partnerships with the private sector already determined to reach low Earth orbit. It appeals to most Americans who couldn't care less about space exploration, but do care about their pocketbook.
An artist's concept of a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitat. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.
As a demonstration project, I'd like to see NASA acquire a Bigelow Aerospace BA-330 inflatable habitat for deployment at the International Space Station. These habitats have more than twice the volume of an ISS module with only slightly more mass. They can be launched on existing rockets — no SLS required. The habitat has been proposed for use on the Nautilus-X project and perhaps even for a lunar colony. Seven nations have signed memoranda to use these habitats, and Bigelow has agreements with SpaceX and Boeing to ferry their customers.
In my opinion, Bigelow is the key to the New Economy.
All this may be just more wishful thinking, but then we space advocates tend to do that a lot.
The next four years promise to be some of the most exciting in NASA history. The International Space Station will be fully operational. Commercial crew will fly, offering the ability to increase the station's resident population. Bigelow may have its first habitat in space. And separate from NASA, adventure tourism will begin, as Virgin Galactic and XCOR take to the skies.
We may not have more Moon rocks, but we'll have lots more people in space.