Tuesday, October 11, 2016

POTUS in Space


Click the arrow to watch a NASA clip released today on the “New Space Economy.” Video source: NASA.gov Video YouTube channel.

President Barack Obama published a guest opinion column today on CNN.com that reaffirms his vision for human spaceflight to Mars in the 2030s.

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time. Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we're already well on our way. Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station.

The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth's orbit. I'm excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space. These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth — something we'll need for the long journey to Mars.

Obama's column made no mention of the government's Space Launch System rocket or Orion capsule. SLS was imposed upon NASA by Congress in 2010 to protect government contractor jobs in the wake of the Space Shuttle's retirement and cancellation of the botched Constellation program. That's why critics call SLS the Senate Launch System.

The White House today posted an article by presidential science advisor John Holdren and NASA administrator Charlie Bolden announcing plans for public-private partnerships to further human expansion into the solar system.

In April 2010, the President challenged the country — and NASA — to send American astronauts on a Journey to Mars in the 2030s. By reaching out further into the solar system and expanding the frontiers of exploration, the President outlined a vision for pushing the bounds of human discovery, while also revitalizing the space industry and creating jobs here at home.

To achieve these mutually-reinforcing goals, the President instructed NASA to develop spacecraft and technologies geared toward sending astronauts to deep space, while at the same time partnering with American companies to build a strong space economy. Following the President’s vision, NASA has worked over the past 6 years to help catalyze a vibrant new sector of the economy by enabling the commercial transportation of cargo and soon crew from American soil to the International Space Station. And today, Americans are working at more than a thousand companies across virtually every state to support commercial space initiatives and with them, the growth of a new commercial market in Low Earth Orbit.

The first program announced was the selection of six companies to produce ground prototypes for deep space habitat modules. (The press release was issued August 9, so why this is an “announcement” is beyond me.) The six are Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Nanoracks.

The second announcement was that NASA will proceed with “providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station.”

While NASA prepares for the transition from the Space Station to its successors, the agency is also working to support and grow the community of scientists and entrepreneurs conducting research and growing businesses in space. A vibrant user community will be key to ensuring the economic viability of future space stations.

Noticeable yet again by its absence is any mention of SLS or Orion. The essay does refer to the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will “send a robotic spacecraft to a nearby asteroid to test out important exploration technologies such as solar-electric propulsion, conduct scientific and planetary defense experiments, and then return a boulder from the asteroid to an orbit around the Moon for astronauts to study.” SLS and Orion will be used for this mission.


President Barack Obama's space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center, April 15, 2010.

President Obama's April 15, 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center called for human spaceflight to Mars in the 2030s, preceded by sending astronauts to an asteroid. His speech did not call for SLS, but for “investing in groundbreaking research and innovative companies that will have the potential to rapidly transform our capabilities.”

... [W]e will invest more than $3 billion to conduct research on an advanced “heavy lift rocket” — a vehicle to efficiently send into orbit the crew capsules, propulsion systems, and large quantities of supplies needed to reach deep space. In developing this new vehicle, we will not only look at revising or modifying older models; we want to look at new designs, new materials, new technologies that will transform not just where we can go but what we can do when we get there. And we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.

The President also called for increasing NASA's budget by $6 billion over the next five years.

Congress said no.

In 2010, both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats, but there was bipartisan consensus that existing government contractor jobs had to be protected by mandating that the next-generation heavy lift rocket be built with Space Shuttle technology that has its roots in the 1970s.

In September 2011, less than a year after Congress imposed SLS on NASA, Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) held a joint media conference to unveil their design for what Nelson called “the monster rocket.” Administrator Bolden was permitted five minutes of comments, but otherwise was relegated to the shadows while politicians of both partisan stripes stepped forward to take credit for protecting government contractor jobs in their districts or states.

In the years since, Congress consistently cut the President's funding requests for the commercial crew program and new technologies, while increasing the White House requests for SLS funding.

With a little more than three months left until Obama leaves office, one might question why bother with this initiative.

The answer, I believe, lies in the federal budget cycle.

This 2016 Office of Management and Budget circular on Page 4 specifies the timeline for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, which begins October 1, 2017.

Even though he leaves office on January 20, 2017, federal law still requires the executive branch to submit a budget proposal by February 6, 2017.

The upshot is that Obama's successor will inherit his budget priorities, like it or not, just as the Obama administration in 2009 had to defend President George W. Bush's Fiscal Year 2010 budget proposal submitted in February 2009.

Last month, the executive branch agencies submitted their FY18 budget proposals to OMB. According to the OMB circular, “OMB staff analyzes agency budget proposals in light of Presidential priorities, program performance, and budget constraints. They raise issues and present options to the Director and other OMB policy officials for their decisions.”

My guess is that Obama hopes to lock into place for at least another year the progress his administration has made building the “robust space industry” proposed by Bush's commission on U.S. space policy in June 2004. What we know today as NewSpace began in earnest when NASA opened the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office in November 2005. But it was the Obama administration that made NewSpace a priority.

The absence of SLS and Orion in today's releases signals that the President's faith in NewSpace hasn't wavered.

Space News posted yesterday an article listing responses to space policy questions from presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. You can read the responses for yourself; in my opinion, neither candidate goes into specifics about space policy plans, although the Clinton campaign's answers are more specific than from the Trump campaign.

Question #7 asked:


7. You have been an advocate for public-private partnerships. Could those be used to support space exploration? If so, how would those public-private partnerships work?

TRUMP
I think there would be ample opportunity for public-private partnerships in the space program, and it is already occurring to some degree with private flights of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. Again, we would work with Congress to determine what structures would serve the interests of the country best.

CLINTON
The public sector’s role in civil space exploration is to drive technological and scientific advancements — focusing the public’s investment on the most challenging missions where there is no near-term commercial applicability. Without those public investments, our knowledge of space, space technologies and Earth observations would languish. NASA contracts with the private sector for nearly all of its missions, and can support a more competitive industry by buying commercial services and establishing new public-private partnership opportunities.

It is in NASA’s interest to work with the private-sector innovators who are opening up new opportunities. We can harness the private sector to give taxpayers the best return on investment, provide crew and cargo access to the International Space Station, and open up new commercial opportunities in communications, Earth observations, and suborbital human spaceflight.

Getting the public-private relationship right is essential to sustaining America’s leadership in space. I am encouraged by the success NASA has seen in accelerating innovation with its new approach to commercial space partnerships under the Obama administration. These public-private partnerships have brought an exciting entrepreneurial spirit to the space industry and should be continued.


Based on the responses from Ms. Clinton's campaign, it seems that her administration will largely maintain the course chartered by the Obama administration.

So today's media releases for me create the impression they're preparing to pass the baton in space from this administration to the next.

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