When the shuttle Endeavour lifts off from central Florida later this month, it will mark the near conclusion of the space shuttle era. Under the command of Mark Kelly, husband of recently wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Endeavour will embark on the second-to-last shuttle mission. It is therefore a ripe time to examine what’s next for NASA.
Last April, President Obama unveiled a comprehensive overhaul of NASA’s future and cancelled much of the Bush-era Constellation plan to return to the moon. Obama’s plan looked to add $6 billion to the NASA budget over the next five years, renew the focus on scientific discovery, lengthen the lifespan of the International Space Station, and most importantly, dramatically increase the role of private contractors in NASA missions. Obama rightly prioritized jobs, science, and national inspiration with his new direction for NASA.
This plan drew immediate criticism from, among others, Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell, and Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, who jointly wrote in a letter to President Obama: “It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded. For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one second or even third rate stature.” The three commanders, however, overvalue pure nationalism at the expense of the NASA roles in job creation, science, and national inspiration.
In today’s economic climate, our first consideration should be jobs. The Obama Plan would add 2,500 more jobs to the American economy than the Bush-era plan. Additionally, the increased private sector involvement in the space program could generate upwards of 10,000 jobs. Conservative critics of Obama’s plan should take note of this increased reliance on the private sector for innovation—after all, a belief in the efficiency of the private sector is a central Republican tenet.
Secondly, Obama’s attention to scientific discoveries with tangible benefits is apt. He endorses exploration of the solar system by robots and a new telescope to succeed Hubble and calls for fresh climate and environmental studies. An extended commitment to the International Space Station further displays Obama’s respect for the scientific discoveries being made onboard. His vision of the role for space exploration is based on science, not nationalism.
Finally, Obama’s plan deftly prioritizes national inspiration over simple nationalism. He argues “exploration will once more inspire wonder in a new generation—sparking passions and launching careers . . . because, ultimately, if we fail to press forward in the pursuit of discovery, we are ceding our future and we are ceding that essential element of the American character.” And this plan is not lacking in inspiration capability. It calls for innovation to build a rocket at least two years earlier than under the Constellation program. This point alone negates the three astronauts’ criticism that many years will be “required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded.” Crewed missions into deep space by 2025. Crewed missions to asteroids. Crewed missions into Mars orbit by the 2030s. A landing on mars to follow. This plan will truly continue NASA’s history of inspiring the people, especially the youth, of the United States.
Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernon assert that the Obama plan will sacrifice American leadership in space. Worthy recipients of the status of national hero, these astronauts nonetheless hail from the space race era. Obama, however, points out that “what was once a global competition has long since become a global collaboration.” I agree with the president that the ambitious nature of his plan will do nothing but “ensure that our leadership in space is even stronger in this new century than it was in the last” as well as “strengthen America’s leadership here on earth.”
Obama’s space exploration plan will create jobs, advance science, and inspire a nation, and it will do so not by sacrificing American dominance in space, but by extending that dominance into new areas of research and exploration.
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