15 April 2010

Thoughts on Obama's Space Speech

Posted by Ryan Anderson

In case you missed it, you can click here to watch Obama’s speech at NASA today and read the transcript here.

Overall there were not a lot of surprises in this speech. NASA still gets a budget increase. The shuttle is still on-track for cancellation, the Constellation program is also going to be canceled, with transportation to and from the ISS to be provided by private companies. The ISS will be extended so that it can actually be used now that it is built, and to make our international partners happy. NASA will begin designing a heavy launch vehicle for trips beyond low Earth orbit, and returning to the Moon is no longer a high priority.

There were some new details and some changes however. First, Obama mentioned some more specific deadlines and destinations:

  • NASA will begin constructing a heavy launch vehicle by 2015
  • Crewed test flights beyond low-earth-orbit by early 2020s
  • Human mission to a near-earth asteroid by 2025
  • Mars missions in the 2030s

This timeline is aggressive but plausible, and looks pretty darn good, considering that the Augustine commission found that even with a $3 billion per year increase in funding, Constellation wouldn’t get us to the moon until the mid 2020s. This fits in very well with the “flexible path” option described by the Augustine commission, and the Roadmap for Space Exploration proposed by the Planetary Society. I think a lot of people underestimate the value of having a series of goals, building off one another, rather than a distant goal and few milestones along the way.

Obama also talked about the new plan to keep the Orion capsule to use as a “lifeboat” from the ISS. I’m somewhat skeptical about this, although obviously NASA will need to continue to develop some sort of capsule to return astronauts to the surface from other missions. I’d like to see more details on what changes will be made to Orion, and how this new “lifeboat” capsule will lead to a capsule to be used by exploration missions. Frankly, this sounds to me like a political decision.

I was disappointed that Obama chose to echo the “been there done that” attitude toward the Moon. I think the Moon still could play an important role in exploration. Although they are very different worlds, it makes some sense to send missions to the moon to prepare for missions to Mars, for example. But I also think the choice to change from a single-minded focus on returning to the moon is the right one. The moon is just one of many possible destinations. The important thing is that with a launch vehicle capable of sending astronauts to asteroids and Mars, it would certainly be possible to go to the moon as well.

So, as I said, not a terribly surprising speech. It’s nice to see some concrete goals, but I’m skeptical of this Orion lifeboat plan. Based on the responses I read on Twitter, there are some space advocates who like the new plan, and others who think it’s the end of space exploration, that their hopes and dreams are crushed, etc. I don’t understand some of the opposition to the new plan, which would give us more capability, sooner, for less money than the original plan. I also don’t understand those complaining about the end of the shuttle. That decision was made six years ago: the time to be angry about that is long gone.

For more detailed opinions on today’s speech, I recommend checking out Phil Plait’s post over at Bad Astronomy, and Joe Shoer’s post over at Quantum Rocketry.