Saturday, June 26, 2010

President Barack Obama's Vision for NASA: Is it the Doom of US Space Exploration or a Misunderstanding?

There has been a great deal of talk about the plans the Obama administration has for NASA since those plans were announced earlier in the year.  Some feel that the current administration has all but taken the United States out of the business of space exploration.  Just what is the truth about the future of NASA?  Has President Obama sealed its fate or is it just one big misunderstanding?

Leaders at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have recently put together an FAQ about the direction the organization is now headed under the current administration.  They've answered some questions by offering further information to clear up some of the misconceptions about the future of the space program.  NASA would like for the public to focus more on the new directions of the organization, such as their plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 than on the furor surrounding the Obama administrations plans for NASA.

Is the Space Program Dead in the Water?
According to Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut and member of the Augustine committee, the new administration didn't come in and kill the space program despite what is commonly being said.  Chiao feels that NASA is getting a slight bump from the Obama administration instead.  In 2010 the annual budget for the space administration was $18.3 billion.  The new plan has set aside $19 billion for 2011.  While that isn't a large increase, it isn't a cut, either.

President Obama has also asked for an additional $6 billion over the course of five years to support a new initiative for private companies to develop commercial spacecraft to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.  It is thought this initiative carries some of the blame for the misunderstanding that the Obama administration wants to pull the plug on US space travel.  Bad timing might also play a part in that seeing as how a current NASA headline is the retirement of the NASA shuttle fleet.

In February 2011, after nearly 30 years in service, the NASA shuttle fleet will be officially retired leaving the US without a means of space travel.  The new plan calls for NASA to work on the design of a heavy-lift rock to carry astronauts to an asteroid and Mars leaving the travel of humans to the International Space Station to Russians and the private sector.

According to Bill Nye, future director of the Planetary Society, this doesn't mean US space exploration will cease, it only means we will be directing our attentions elsewhere.  Despite this, there has been a strong protest from the public, lawmakers and space leaders, the most recent protest from former astronaut and senator John Glenn.

The United States Must Rely on Russia to Hitch Rides Into Space?
Yes, it is true that once the NASA shuttle fleet is officially retired, the United States will be left without transportation to and from the International Space Station.  According to Chiao, this isn't a new development.  As far back as 2004 when the Constellation moon program was announced it was known then that the US would be left without space vehicles after the retirement of the shuttle fleet.

According to the Augustine committee, a committee established by the Obama administration, the gap of time the US will be without space vehicles is a possible three years as opposed to at least seven years under the Constellation program.

Was the Obama Policy Constructed Behind Closed Doors By a Group With a Hidden Agenda?
In May of this year, American and space legend Neil Armstrong made the following statement to a Senate subcommittee reviewing NASA's new space plan of an astronaut visit to an asteroid:  "A plan that was invisible to so many was likely contrived by a very small group in secret."

But not all share Armstrong's views.

James Oberg, a former shuttle mission control engineer feels it is a great misconception that the whole idea of the asteroid project was dreamt up behind closed doors with no space community input.  He says the plan went through years of analysis, modification and critiques by a worldwide team.

The Problems with the Obama Plan, Are They in Presentation Only?
Oberg believes that some of the misunderstandings surrounding the Obama administrations plans for NASA stems from clumsy presentation.  On February 6, 2010, NASA Chief Charlie Bolden admitted he made mistakes in presenting the plan.  "Was it screwed up?  Yes, it was," Bolden said in regard to the presentation of the plan.

Oberg also feels that the current political environment and trust issues with the current administration is partly to blame for the misunderstandings of the space plan.

For more information:
FAQ:  NASA's New Direction's "The Fact Sheet:  Obama's Space Plan Revealed"

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