Obama and our future in space

Grayson SImmons

I voted for Barack Obama during the recent election. There are a number of reasons why he got my vote, and although some might not think it carries much weight, his administration’s position on our space program was one of them. The Obama administration’s space policies so far haven’t fit into one neat column of good or bad.

The Constellation Program, an ambitious attempt to send equipment and manned missions back to the moon and eventually to Mars, was halted and defunded by Obama in 2009 because of budgetary and scheduling concerns. A budgetary review board projected a $150 billion price tag for the whole program. It was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation,” Obama said.

In response to Obama’s decision, the late Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong attempted to reverse the decision by testifying before Congress, but to no avail. Then, in 2010 Obama hosted a space conference to answer some questions about the program’s cancellation.

During the conference, Obama introduced a different Mars-bound course than the one the Constellation Program had pursued. Obama’s plan, called a “Flexible Path to Mars,” includes plans for a new heavy-lift launch vehicle with the capacity to get large objects (like satellites and manned spacecraft) out of the atmosphere. In late 2011, details of certain launch vehicles were released as future replacements for the Constellation Program’s Ares rockets. Obama also halted the deorbit of the International Space Station by providing additional funding through 2020. Compared to former President George W. Bush, who took a backseat role in spaceflight, Obama is more involved in the activities of NASA and this country’s future in space. That is not a bad change.

In contrast to Armstrong’s criticism, fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin has offered support for Obama’s approach to the space program. Even Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, the private company that bids for many government space contracts, supports Obama’s recent space decisions. Both Aldrin and Musk agree with Obama’s decision to dismantle the Constellation Program in favor of a new direction for our space program — a direction that relies heavily on commercial industry. And as much as I dislike the privatization of the space program, due to the current state of USA-built, space-capable, manned launch systems (read: none), I’ll take what I can get.

It’s hard to predict what may have happened had Republican nominee Mitt Romney been elected. It’s hard to find any concrete evidence of his goals for the space program. Unlike Obama, who has been said to have been more interested in the specifics of our space program than any presidential candidate before him, Romney’s plans were almost nonexistent. When asked about it, he often replied with something insubstantial about how Obama is doing a poor job and how he could do better. At least with Obama we have some real information.

My view is that NASA should take advantage of the federal funding that the Obama administration doles out. I realize that few others share my view. But I appreciate the due consideration the administration gives the future of American space flight, because that gives me faith that future decisions to alter or even end current programs will at least be made with consideration of those programs’ advantages.

Simmons is an aerospace engineering junior from Austin.