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Let the finger pointing begin on NASA, access to space, and the Ukraine crisis

Dragon docked to the ISS
Dragon docked to the ISS

While the crisis in the Ukraine has not yet caused enough of a rift between the United States and Russia for the latter to deny the former access to the International Space Station, the finger pointing over even the possibility of it happening has begun. A case in point is a March 4, 2014 post by Steven Smith in his Space KSC blog. He places the blame on the possible loss by NASA of access to space squarely on the shoulders of Congress.

“In early 2010, the Obama administration released its proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2011. It proposed cancelling Constellation, and replacing it with a new commercial crew program similar to the successful commercial cargo program begun in 2005 by the Bush administration.

“Congress hated it, because Constellation delivered billions of dollars annually to the states and districts of the members of the Senate and House space subcommittees.”

Here Smith does not tell the whole story. Constellation was the plan developed by the Bush administration, in consultation with Congress and the aerospace community, to send astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars and other destinations. While it was experiencing cost overruns and schedule problems by 2009-2010, cancellation was not the only or even the optimal option faced by the Obama administration.

Indeed the Second Augustine Commission laid out two options. One, called “Moon First”, would have restructured the program, using hardware that oddly enough resembled what became the heavy lift Space Launch System and the Orion, to return to the moon. The other was called “Flexible Path” which would involve sending expeditions to asteroids, the moons of Mars, and so on, using the same sorts of hardware. Both plans would eventually lead to landings on Mars. While the Obama administration did not fund any space exploration program in its initial FY 2011 budget, the president was eventually obliged to accept a variant of the Flexible Path plan which he unveiled in his April 15, 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center.

The Obama administration even had a precedence for mending not ending it. When the Clinton administration found that the Space Station Freedom program was costing too much and was behind schedule, it opted to restructure the program, bring the Russians in as full partners (it seemed like a good idea at the time), and started the International Space Station. The ISS is now in orbit, doing good science, serving as a destination for commercial spacecraft.

Without consulting Congress or any of the other aerospace stakeholders, the Obama administration abruptly cancelled the Constellation program and went all in on commercial crew. Both the White House and NASA were surprised when Congress reacted negatively.

Smith goes on.

“In a grand bargain, Congress reluctantly cancelled Constellation, but foisted upon NASA another pork project called the Space Launch System. Dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics, to this day SLS has no mission or destination. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), one of the SLS architects, dubbed it “the Monster Rocket”; along with several colleagues, he bragged about how many jobs it would protect. No one really had much to say about what it would do.

“Congress mandated that NASA spend about $3 billion a year over the next five years on SLS and the Orion crew capsule, a holdover from Constellation. Commercial crew, meanwhile, was starved by Congress, which cut its funding by 62% over the last three fiscal years from the Obama administration's funding requests. For Fiscal Year 2014, it was cut 15%.

“Time and again, NASA warned Congress that cutting commercial crew in favor of SLS only extended reliance on Russia.

“Congress didn't care.”

Smith is using loaded language, especially in regards to the Space Launch System. The SLS, similar to the launch vehicle recommended by the Augustine Commission, is a heavy lifter that is vital to any plans for space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. For practical reasons, without the SLS or some similar heavy lifter, there can be no space exploration beyond LEO. The project may benefit certain states and congressional districts, but it has a purpose beyond that, that being the opening of the high frontier of space for exploration. Pretending that it doesn’t does not change that fact.

Congress did cut funding for the commercial crew program. In part this was motivated by understandable anger felt by members over the high handed way Constellation was killed without their consent. Partly this was because of skepticism that the private sector could build and operate crewed space vehicles. One can question the motives of Congress, but it is clear that they were not adequately answered by the White House or NASA. The killing of Constellation, among other things, wrecked the credibility that both may have had with Congress.

Also the notion of paying massive government subsidies to private businesses for “commercial” spacecraft left a bad odor. It smacked of crony capitalism. It was less the spirit of Apollo than the spirit of Solyndra.

It is also true that these budget cuts extended American reliance on the Russians and that “Congress didn’t care.” But apparently neither did President Obama. When figures like Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney warned that Russia under Vladimir Putin was a threat, Obama and his allies scoffed.

So does Congress share some of the blame for the fix NASA is in concerning access to the ISS? Certainly. But considering that the matter could have been avoided if President Obama had pursued another option besides cancelling Constellation, either by restructuring it along the lines suggested by the Augustine Committee, or just spending the money to plug the funding gap, The buck stops in the Oval Office and so Obama, as the leader and chief executive, must shoulder the lion’s share of blame for what might follow.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories, and The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper

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