Click the arrow to watch President Obama's speech on YouTube.
Five years ago today, President Barack Obama delivered a space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center.
The cynic in me wonders if the lesson the President took from that day, and the events of that year, is that there's no upside to spending political capital on the government space program.
Two months before, the Obama administration rocked the space-industrial complex when NASA proposed cancelling Constellation to replace it with commercial cargo and crew programs. Although NASA claimed Constellation would return the United States to the Moon by 2020, the reality was that Constellation was years behind schedule and billions over budget. The program received one bad audit after another. It had been badly underfunded by the Bush administration, and Congress had shown no inclination to do something about it.
The first Constellation launch vehicle, Ares I, was to take crew to the International Space Station in the Orion capsule. Originally scheduled for 2014, by the time Obama took office Ares I had slipped to at least 2017. The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee believed it could slip to 2019. The committee noted that Ares I was to be funded by decommissioning the ISS in 2016, meaning NASA was building a rocket to nowhere.
The Ares V, which was to be NASA's Moon launch vehicle, wouldn't be ready until the end of the 2020s, and there was no funding for a lunar lander to take astronauts to the surface.
Proposing the end of Constellation unleashed a political firestorm on Capitol Hill. Constellation contractors, and the politicians who benefitted from their generous campaign contributions, spewed apocalyptic claims that Obama intended to end the U.S. human spaceflight program.
Although his April 15, 2010 KSC speech was not particularly memorable as a work of lyrical prose, Obama did serve notice that he intended to change the cozy relationships between NASA, its legacy contractors, and the politicians who protected those interests.
The President said that day:
But I also know that underlying these concerns is a deeper worry, one that precedes not only this plan but this administration. It stems from the sense that people in Washington — driven sometimes less by vision than by politics — have for years neglected NASA’s mission and undermined the work of the professionals who fulfill it. We’ve seen that in the NASA budget, which has risen and fallen with the political winds.
But we can also see it in other ways: in the reluctance of those who hold office to set clear, achievable objectives; to provide the resources to meet those objectives; and to justify not just these plans but the larger purpose of space exploration in the 21st century.
All that has to change.
April 15, 2010 ... President Obama tours Launch Complex 40 with SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Image source: WhiteHouse.gov.
In my 2010 blog article, I cited a column by Time magazine senior Jeffrey Kluger, who lambasted Obama's speech. Kluger labelled as a “tactical blunder” Obama's visit that day to Launch Complex 40, where SpaceX founder Elon Musk led the President on a tour of the company's facilities. At this time, SpaceX was still two months away from its first Falcon 9 launch at LC-40. Kluger dismissed the visit as “eye candy” and huffed, “Plenty of NASA folks want nothing to do with the private-sector interloper.”
Left unexplained by Mr. Kluger was why he thought Obama should kowtow to a group of government civil servants. NASA employees answer in the chain of command to the President, not the other way around.
By the time 2010 ended, a delicate compromise had been negotiated by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). Constellation was cancelled, but replaced with another pork program, the Space Launch System. SLS was labelled the Senate Launch System by its critics for this very reason. It had no missions of destinations, but its political supporters lauded the legacy contractor jobs that would be protected.
The commercial crew program could proceed, but those protecting the pork assured it was underfunded so the interests of the legacy contractors were protected.
The compromise did succeed in saving the ISS from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The Obama administration intended to fulfill our nation's promise to its spacefaring partners that we would operate the ISS until 2020. In January 2014, the White House announced its intention to extend the ISS to 2024. In February of this year, Russia announced it would join the U.S. in operating the ISS through 2024, despite the strained political relations between the two nations.
I suspect that historians will look back at saving the ISS as one of the most significant achievements of the Obama-era space program, because it provides a hub for true commercialization of space.
“NewSpace,” as it's sometimes called, didn't originate with the Obama administration. It began in 2004 under President George W. Bush, in the wake of the Columbia accident.
President George W. Bush announces his Vision for Space Exploration on January 14, 2004.
It wasn't mentioned in President Bush's January 14, 2004 Vision for Space Exploration speech, but commercialization was part of the detailed proposal that was delivered to Congress. Bush appointed a commission to recommend how to implement his Vision. That panel in June 2004 delivered a report with a section titled “Building a Robust Space Industry.” The report stated:
The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. This space industry will become a national treasure.
NASA opened its Commercial Crew/Cargo Program Office in November 2005. Constellation would rely on commercial cargo providers to service ISS, but commercial crew went unfunded, perhaps because it would have created a rival for the “OldSpace” Ares I.
The first cargo contracts were issued by the Bush administration to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler in 2006; after RpK failed to achieve early milestones, it was dropped for Orbital Sciences in 2007. The Obama administration used the cargo model for commercial crew.
Every year since he proposed it in 2010, Congress has joyfully slashed Obama's proposed funding for commercial crew. They succeeded only in extending U.S. reliance on Russia for ISS access. Their failed leadership created last year's political crisis where Russia threatened to end U.S. access to the ISS in retaliation for U.S. sanctions after Russia invaded Crimea.
For over fifty years, the NASA bureaucracy held a death grip on U.S. civilian access to space. Any entity or individual who might want to fly to space from the United States had to go through NASA. “Space tourists” such as Dennis Tito went to the ISS via Russia. Microgravity experiments on the Space Shuttle or the ISS had to be justified as worthy of NASA's time.
But in 2010, the Obama administration solicited proposals to turn over operation of the U.S. national laboratory on the ISS to a non-profit entity. NASA would no longer guard the gate.
The Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) now finds commercial, government and education customers to use the lab. The private sector can do research as it sees fit.
Click the arrow to watch the April 12, 2015 ISS National Laboratory media event. Video source: NASA YouTube channel.
Despite Congressional underfunding, in 2015 the two commercial crew companies will begin uncrewed tests. SpaceX and Boeing have contracts not only to deliver crew to the ISS, but also agreements to fly to the private sector Bigelow Aerospace expandable habitats.
The Bigelow technology is licensed from NASA, which developed the idea in the 1990s with a project called TransHab. The module would have had an inflatable shell made of materials such as Kevlar. It would have been cheaper to deploy and maintain than the aluminum and steel used to construct the ISS.
But the ISS, as with most NASA programs, was seriously behind schedule and over budget. In 1999, the National Space Society issued a statement urging Congress to ban NASA from development of TransHab, although research could continue.
Transhab, a research and development program intended to investigate the potential of habitable, inflatable space structures, has come under fire within the House of Representatives. Concerns were raised by legislators that the R & D effort would emerge from the ISS office as a construction project that would replace the current station habitation module. The fear was that with the replacement would come a dramatic increase in the cost of the International Space Station and delays in the contemplated construction schedule.
Congress followed that recommendation and cancelled TransHab in 2000. OldSpace triumphed yet again.
But Bob Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA and invested his own money in developing a private space station, which he calls an expandable habitat.
NASA under the Obama administration has been much friendlier to Bob Bigelow.8 News NOW
Click the arrow to watch the January 16, 2013 NASA event at Bigelow Aerospace. Video source: KLAS-TV Channel 8, Las Vegas.
In January 2013, NASA acquired a prototype called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module to deploy at the ISS. BEAM was delivered to NASA in March, and is scheduled to launch to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-8 delivery this fall.
For the first time in history, a commercial cargo carrier will launch a commercial space station.
The first full-scale Bigelow habitats, called the B-330, are being built now in Las Vegas. Bigelow hopes to launch them in 2018.
The enduring legacy of NASA under President Obama is that his administration opened the door for private companies to launch private customers to private space stations.
That could happen by the end of this decade.
The NewSpace genie is out of the bottle.
Like Bob Bigelow, Elon Musk is a man on a mission. SpaceX technology continually evolves. United Launch Alliance, born in 2006 to create a legal monopoly, chose not to evolve unless compensated by the government. Now ULA scrambles to find a market share in the commercial payload launch business, because SpaceX has shown it can launch for a fraction of the cost. New ULA CEO Tory Bruno has pledged to make ULA competitive, as members of Congress start to ask uncomfortable questions about why ULA should continue to have a military launch monopoly.
That wouldn't be happening now if it weren't for the Obama administration opening the door to NewSpace.
Five years ago, Barack Obama pledged change.
In my opinion, it was change for the better.
April 14, 2015 ... Five years after President Obama's visit to this site, SpaceX launches its sixth cargo delivery to the ISS under a 12-mission contract with NASA. Video source: SpaceX YouTube channel.