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National Space Policy downplays role of NASA

Wed, 06/30/2010 - 9:02am
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Jason LombergOn Monday, President Obama officially announced his National Space Policy. There were few surprises, but in this case, no news is bad news. NASA has never been so irrelevant to the National Space Policy.

It’s right there in NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s statement (emphasis mine)—NASA is pleased to be an integral part of President Obama's National Space Policy.” For years, NASA was the National Space Policy. But after Constellation was scuttled, NASA has taken a backseat to the private sector. NASA clearly has a role to play, albeit a supporting role. This will be limited to research, robotics, monitoring climate change, and ensuring that our GPS units function properly (no kidding).

The stated goals include the following:

• Energize competitive domestic industries 
• Expand international cooperation 
• Strengthen stability in space
• Increase assurance and resilience of mission-essential functions
• Pursue human and robotic initiatives
• Improve space-based Earth and solar observation

The “far-reaching exploration milestones” include extending the life of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020 or beyond, sending humans to an asteroid by 2025, and a roundtrip to Mars by the mid 2030s. How this will be achieved is a mystery.

In one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, Buzz Aldrin salutes the American flag. Will the U.S. cede its “leadership in space?”
Obama’s Space Policy leans heavily on the private sector. As part of the "Commercial Crew Development" (CCDev) competition, $50 million was appropriated from the Stimulus Act to facilitate development of orbital spacecraft. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences also have contracts (worth a combined total of $3.5 billion) to build and launch unmanned cargo ships to the ISS. This capability will be sorely needed when the Space Shuttle retires later this year. There’s a 10-year gap between the retirement of the Shuttle and completion of the ISS.

NASA will pursue research in “heavy-life rockets,” monitor climate change, and “Provide continuous worldwide access...to the Global Positioning System (GPS).” The private sector will take care of the rest. But existing ventures entail development of orbital vehicles; nothing that will allow us to reach Mars. This is a problem. Does heavy-life rocket research + private sector = Mars?

Under the new Space Policy, NASA is actually prohibited from directly competing with the private sector. NASA must “Refrain from conducting United States Government space activities that preclude, discourage, or compete with U.S. commercial space activities, unless required by national security or public safety.”

The Space Shuttle was a textbook case of government mismanagement. Project Constellation was behind schedule and over budget, so it was probably wise to cancel it. But in its place we have…uncertainty. The Space Policy aims to “Strengthen US Space Leadership.” But NASA is no longer at the tip of the spear.

Update (7/1/2010)-- The Space Shuttle will now retire in 2011, with the last mission launching on February 26, 2011.

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