That’s what frustrated Casey Dreier, the director of space policy at the Planetary Society, when he read Obama’s op-ed this week. Dreier told me he was glad to hear from Obama on Mars; he believes it’s “fundamentally important that a president is excited about space.” But the Obama administration’s actions haven’t always jibed with its goals for Mars, he said.
“It’s almost like he’s talking about a different NASA,” Dreier said.
In his $17.7 billion budget proposal for NASA fiscal year 2013, Obama asked Congress for about $1.2 billion for the space agency’s planetary sciences division, which builds and operates all robotic missions in the solar system, including the orbiters and landers that have gone to Mars. That represented a 20 percent cut to the division’s budget from the year before. The reduction forced NASA to withdraw from a joint project with the European Space Agency that launched an orbiter and a lander to Mars earlier this year. “We are having to make tough decisions, because these are tough economic times," NASA chief Charlie Bolden said when the budget request was released in early 2012. "We are doing all that we can to be fiscally responsible."
Congress responded by putting more money back in; the Senate proposed $100 million more than Obama’s request for planetary sciences, and the House proposed over $200 million. The final number came to $1.3 billion. In the years since, Congress has appropriated more than Obama has requested, and lawmakers restored 2013 funding levels by fiscal year 2016.
Lawmakers have also appropriated more funds for the Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket Congress told NASA to build in 2010, which is supposed to launch astronauts on a journey to Mars. Experts say the government would be better off using reusable rockets produced by commercial companies instead of pouring millions of dollars into one they can’t use again. The Obama administration has proposed cuts to the SLS, which have faced criticism from Republican lawmakers whose home states support NASA jobs. “This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Lamar Smith, a Texas congressman and the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, when Obama released his proposal in February. Smith has also criticized the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)—the administration’s plans to lasso an asteroid and bring it into the moon’s orbit, where astronauts can visit it, by the mid-2020s—calling it a “distraction” from NASA’s Mars goals.
But Obama’s legacy in space policy will not be the SLS, or even the Mars mission he describes as “the next chapter of America’s story in space.” The president has presided over an unprecedented expansion of partnerships between government agencies and commercial entities over space technology. Obama has requested more and more each year in funds for NASA’s commercial spaceflight program, which invests in private companies that are designing launch systems—like SpaceX and Boeing—to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, a capability NASA lost when the shuttle program ended.