The future of NASA is a charged issue that doesn't divide along partisan lines. The
Obama administration's plan to privatize manned space flight has won plaudits from conservatives like Newt Gingrich, who called it "a brave reboot,'' while angering others, like former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a longtime NASA champion whose district included the Johnson Space Center. Democrats affected by the cuts have raised an outcry -- Florida Senator Bill Nelson called it "dead wrong'' -- while others have
cheered the proposal to refocus the agency on climate change issues.
Obama's new approach to space is being touted as a tough, forward-looking set of policies designed to serve the nation's long-term interests. The Constellation program, the
administration points out, was over budget, behind schedule, and relied on existing technology; even the destination -- the moon -- was nothing new. Better to direct those funds to developing heavy-lift rocket systems and robotic exploration missions that might one day help people visit new worlds. The prohibitive cost of a manned mission to Mars or an asteroid, both touted by the president in an April speech, means that any such mission will be a cooperative effort with other nations.
Critics reply that killing Constellation and reorienting NASA is foolish and costly. "The innovations that have
come out of the space program are phenomenal,'' DeLay said. "With our
failing manufacturing base, it is extremely important for our economy to
maintain them.'' Private space flight has shown promise, but it will be
years before a commercial company can safely launch astronauts into
space. Lacking the capacity to send US astronauts to the International
Space Station, we'll soon pay Russia to ferry them there, which won't be
But the loudest
complaint regards "American greatness'' -- the idea that the willing
forfeiture of our leadership in space amounts to a kind of moral
trespass that will cede to nations like China and India the next great
strides in science and technology.
Stopping Obama and saving NASA's manned
missions is unlikely. History and politics have conspired against it.
Without the Cold War imperative to beat the Soviet Union, the space
program's profile has waned. NASA has depended for years -- sometimes
against the wishes of the president -- on a succession of powerful
congressional figures, most recently Tom DeLay, whose clout helped
ensure that Constellation would succeed the shuttle program.
But after introducing Constellation, Bush
never mentioned it again. DeLay was forced to leave Congress soon
afterward, and NASA has never found his equivalent champion. Congress
still must pass a budget, but Obama's vision is likely to prevail.
Where his critics have a point is in
arguing that NASA lacks a clear mission. Without a directive and
funding, talk of visiting Mars or an asteroid is grandiose but empty.
Meanwhile, gauzy nostrums about inspiring children and international
cooperation are creating political headaches. Last week, NASA
administrator Charles Bolden touched
off a storm when he told al Jazeera
that the agency's new mission was to "find a way to reach out to the
Muslim world'' -- surely not what anybody had in mind.
Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.