Monday, April 15, 2013

When Obama Visited KSC

Click the arrow to watch President Obama's speech on YouTube.

Three years ago, President Barack Obama visited Kennedy Space Center. The Florida Today report is still online.

In the Operations and Checkout building, he gave a speech outlining his space policy. You can read the text of the speech here.

In reading the speech, let's set the context.

This was shortly after the Obama administration submitted the Fiscal Year 2011 proposed budget to Congress. That budget included a proposal to cancel Constellation, a program begun by President George W. Bush in 2004 as part of his Vision for Space Exploration. Constellation eventually would feature an Ares I rocket for taking crew to the International Space Station, and an Ares V heavy-lift vehicle that would take astronauts beyond Earth orbit, to the Moon and beyond.

I've written many times about Constellation's flaws, specifically in this article. For those paying attention, by 2009 Constellation was in serious trouble. Constellation was years behind schedule and billions over budget. The Ares I would not send crews to the ISS until at least 2017, but would be funded by retiring the ISS in 2015 — it was a rocket with nowhere to go. The Ares V was a paper exercise; it wouldn't fly until at least 2028.

These problems — nothing new for the NASA bureaucracy — were reported first by the independent Government Accountability Agency in August 2009 and then the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in October 2009.

Constellation was a fig leaf for fundamental structural flaws within NASA's bureaucracy. Some were not the agency's fault; Congress demanded much of NASA but often failed to provide the funding. NASA's bureaucracy of space centers scattered across the U.S. is a relic of the late 1950s and early 1960s; when NASA was created in October 1958, it was a merger of various civilian and military aerospace programs. The Johnson Space Center, born the Manned Spaceflight Center, was placed in Houston in 1962, one reason being that its representative in the House was Albert Thomas, who headed the Appropriations subcommittee over NASA (although Houston had many legitimate qualities that earned it the new space center).

The result was that NASA became for many a workfare program that directed spending to the states and districts of those on the House and Senate space subcommittees. It didn't really matter if anything was finished on time and on budget, so long as the pork kept flowing to the contractors who employed those voters and donated to their re-election campaigns.

Many independent reviews over the years warned Congress of this behavior but, as I wrote last December, Congress simply ignores the reports and points the finger of blame elsewhere while assuring the pork keeps flowing.

Cancelling Constellation shocked the space-industrial complex. It threatened the very foundation of the cozy relationship between Congressional porkers and the contractors who donate to their campaigns. Some workers unaware of the political machinations behind Constellation concocted bizarre conspiracy theories about Obama trying to funnel pork to those who donated to his campaign. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, was a particular target, which was absurd because SpaceX got its first commercial cargo contract from NASA in 2006 during the Bush administration.

President Barack Obama visits the SpaceX launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

This bogus rumor got traction when Obama, before his O&C speech, visited the SpaceX pad at Launch Complex 40, where he was given a tour by Musk. In a February 20 Huffington Post article, Musk said the only reason Obama toured the SpaceX pad was that the Secret Service was concerned about a liquid hydrogen tank at a United Launch Alliance pad. “He was actually scheduled to go to their launch site, and literally two days beforehand it was changed to us,” Musk said. “But as a result, there's a bunch of photos of me walking around with Obama on the launch site like he's my best friend.”

Some locals claimed that Obama had betrayed a 2008 promise made in Titusville during his election campaign, saying he had promised to keep Constellation going. But that wasn't true either. He merely said he would speed along the Shuttle's successor. He didn't say what that successor would be.

Obama decided to prime the pump on the Bush-era commercial cargo and crew program, the origins of which I wrote about last month. Contrary to the claims by some, commercial space was the brainchild of the Bush administration, starting with the Aldridge Commission in June 2004. The report called for “the breaking down of barriers to commercial and entrepreneurial activities in space, as well as a cultural shift towards encouraging and incentivizing more private sector business in space. Such a change in both perspective and posture is essential if we are to develop a broad-based, societal change in space business.”

When Obama delivered his KSC speech in April 2010, it was unclear whether his administration would succeed in fundamentally changing the way NASA operated. But for those who paid attention to his speech, that's exactly what he said he intended to do.

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.

Obama began by proposing that NASA's budget be increased by $6 billion over the next five years. Anyone paying attention knows that hasn't happened — primarily because Congress has rejected requested increases in programs favored by the administration, commercial crew in particular. Faced with trillion dollar annual deficits, and most recently the sequester, the administration has proposed essentially flat-line budgets the last two fiscal years.

But Congress did impose upon NASA the Space Launch System to replace Constellation. One pork program was replaced by another. SLS was dubbed the “Senate Launch System” by a Competitive Space Task Force column in March 2011, and the appellation stuck. Since then, many members of the Congressional space authorization and appropriations subcommittees have pitted SLS and commercial space in a zero-sum battle, accusing the Obama administration of scheming to undermine SLS to benefit commercial space. In the last two fiscal year battles, Congress substantially cut the administration's commercial crew funding requests to assure SLS got every dime Congress wanted.

Obama proposed in his speech that “we will ramp up robotic exploration of the solar system,” and that's reflected not only in robotic craft such as the SpaceX Dragon but last week's asteroid initiative that would send a robotic spacecraft to capture an asteroid.

Then he doubled down on the Bush-era commercial space program, to extend the life of the International Space Station:

... [W]e will extend the life of the International Space Station likely by more than five years, while actually using it for its intended purpose: conducting advanced research that can help improve the daily lives of people here on Earth, as well as testing and improving upon our capabilities in space. This includes technologies like more efficient life support systems that will help reduce the cost of future missions. And in order to reach the space station, we will work with a growing array of private companies competing to make getting to space easier and more affordable.

Now, I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. I disagree. The truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly 50 years ago, to the space shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead. By buying the services of space transportation — rather than the vehicles themselves — we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies — from young startups to established leaders — compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.

The International Space Station in May 2011. It would have been retired in 2015 by Bush-era policy, but the Obama administration succeeded in extending it to at least 2020.

Some have claimed that this policy declaration pulled the plug on deep space exploration beyond Earth orbit — but that's untrue.

Here's what Obama said that day:

... [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. And I want everybody to understand: That’s at least two years earlier than previously planned — and that’s conservative, given that the previous program was behind schedule and over budget.

He then proposed that NASA bypass the Moon with the eventual goal of sending astronauts to Mars:

Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So we’ll start — we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.

Last week's asteroid initiative was a step in the direction of fulfilling this proposal.

Obama levelled with those who wanted to protect the status quo.

... [P]ursuing this new strategy will require that we revise the old strategy. In part, this is because the old strategy — including the Constellation program — was not fulfilling its promise in many ways. That’s not just my assessment; that’s also the assessment of a panel of respected non-partisan experts charged with looking at these issues closely. Now, despite this, some have had harsh words for the decisions we’ve made, including some individuals who I’ve got enormous respect and admiration for.

But what I hope is, is that everybody will take a look at what we are planning, consider the details of what we’ve laid out, and see the merits as I’ve described them. The bottom line is nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way, and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things that we’ve been doing and thinking that somehow is going to get us to where we want to go.

In a proposal that presaged the solar electric propulsion engine that will be part of the asteroid initiative, Obama said:

Critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I’m challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And we’ll give you the resources to break through these barriers.

NASA's asteroid initiative proposes using a solar electric propulsion engine for the robotic spacecraft that will capture the asteroid. Image source: NASA.

Two years later, Aviation Week reported:

Solar-electric propulsion (SEP) is high on NASA's list of things to do in its growing effort to develop technologies that will support long-term human space exploration. And within that arena, figuring out how to deploy large, lightweight solar arrays in space is a key enabler. Even after building the International Space Station with its 115-ft.-long array wings, the agency sees the technology readiness level (TRL) of deploying big arrays for exploration beyond low Earth orbit at 3 or 4—a long way from the demonstrated operational capability represented by TRL 9.

Results are starting to come in under the relatively open-ended technology development effort launched at the beginning of the Obama administration. While Congress has not approved the billion-dollar funding levels for the work the White House wanted, it has sprung enough money to make a start. Now five companies have come back with concept reports on what it would take to build and fly a solar-powered space tug testbed by the end of the decade, at a cost of $200 million. It remains to be seen if a testbed actually will be built, given the ongoing funding uncertainty in these parlous fiscal times. But the concept studies should help NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) better understand what needs to be done, and just how much it will cost.

As for the jobs lost at the end of the Shuttle era, Obama proposed “a $40 million initiative led by a high-level team from the White House, NASA, and other agencies to develop a plan for regional economic growth and job creation. And I expect this plan to reach my desk by August 15th.”

That it did. The Presidential Task Force on Space Industry Workforce & Economic Development report arrived on August 15. The proposal went to Congress, which failed to fund the program. According to a May 1, 2011 Florida Today article:

The president followed through with a budget amendment on June 18, calling for “up to $40 million in aid for Florida's Space Coast.” By August, the task force had vetted proposals ranging from $400,000 to $27 million, including money for clean-energy startups and roads or buildings to help biomedical and aerospace businesses.

So far, so good.

The grant money appeared in the 2011 budget passed last fall by the U.S. House, led then by Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. The Commerce Department had the list of projects and was poised to cut checks, [Senator Bill] Nelson's office reports.

But it was an election year.

Republican Senators killed the budget bill on Nov. 30, along with Brevard's $40 million, by vowing a filibuster. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made the move, preventing a vote, with a letter signed by the entire Republican caucus, including then-interim-Sen. George LeMieux, R-Broward County. LeMieux and Haridopolos' are now rivals in the 2012 Republican primary.

So here we are three years later.

The space-industrial complex is alive and well and still fighting for taxpayer pork. But commercial space is vibrant, starting to win the hearts and minds of those in the space advocacy community.

SpaceX has flown three cargo deliveries to the ISS — a demonstration flight and two official deliveries, returning experiments, biological samples and broken parts needing repair.

Orbital Sciences, the other contractor in the commercial cargo program, hopes to test its Antares rocket later this week. If that goes well, they hope to launch the demonstration flight of their Cygnus robotic cargo craft this summer.

Commercial crew, underfunded by Congress, has seen its schedule slip by two years, although there's some hope that SpaceX might fly a crewed demonstration flight by 2015. Boeing and Sierra Nevada estimate their flights will be in 2016.

Obama succeeded in extending the ISS to 2020. With construction completed in May 2011, crew members have been able to spend more time on research. We continue to see promising results such as this February 4 ESA article about discovering the immunity gene and this March 23 Boston Globe article about protein crystallography that may have helped Japanese researchers develop a treatment for muscular dystrophy.

Click the arrow to watch the CASIS promotional video on YouTube.

The Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is open here in Brevard County, recruiting commercial and educational researchers to use the ISS. CASIS recently awarded grants for protein crystallization research and participated in the Space, Cancer and Medicine Conference in Spartanburg, North Carolina.

Obama's “heavy lift rocket” design is under way, only it's not 21st Century technology as he envisioned. Congress imposed upon NASA the Space Launch System, directing that it use Shuttle-era technology. The core tank is an enlarged version of the Shuttle's orange external tank; when it launches circa 2017, it will use four engines removed from Space Shuttle orbiters. Those engines were designed to be reusable, but thanks to Congress they will wind up at the bottom of the ocean or burn up in the atmosphere instead of being displayed in a museum.

When Congress ordered the SLS, they did not give NASA a use. More than two years later, they still haven't.

Last week's asteroid initiative proposed a use to Congress. We'll have to see if Congress says yes or no; if no, then NASA is still building a rocket without a purpose.

Obama gave up trying to increase NASA's budget as promised. Congress made it clear they won't let him. If Congress wanted to increase NASA's budget, they could, but they haven't.

As for displaced Shuttle workers, some have left the area. Some live off their severance packages, looking for work. Others have found jobs. But as with the rest of the nation, Brevard's economy is slowly healing, just as it did after the end of the Apollo program when layoffs were far worse.

President Obama issued a challenge three years ago today. He took on the space-industrial complex and those in Congress who direct pork to it. “All that has to change, ” he said. He levelled with those who wanted to save Constellation, saying we couldn't afford to do business like that any more if we really want to go beyond Earth orbit.

Obama hasn't fully succeeded. Yet. But with every SpaceX flight, with every new strictly private enterprise such as Bigelow Aerospace, Stratolaunch, XCOR, Virgin Galactic, Planetary Resources and Golden Spike, it's clear that the space culture is changing.

By the time Obama leaves office on January 20, 2017, we might see the first elements of a private space station in orbit, with private space vehicles to service them. You won't have to be a government employee to go into space. That in itself is revolutionary, and changing the way NASA does business helped make it possible.

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