How Barack Obama ruined NASA space exploration

One of the tasks that President Donald Trump has before him, along with revamping immigration and trade, repealing and replacing ObamaCare, and rebuilding the military, is restoring America’s space exploration program to its former glory. Press reports suggest that the administration is looking at an early return to the moon, using commercial partnerships.

To understand the task that the president and whomever he chooses as NASA administrator have before them, it is useful to look back on how profoundly and adroitly President Barack Obama crippled the space agency’s efforts to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. When Obama came into office, he did what a number of other presidents have done to determine their goals for NASA: he formed a presidential commission to study the space agency and come up with some recommendations.

The Augustine Commission, so named after its chairman former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, returned with a set of recommendations some months later. The commission found that the program then in existence, Project Constellation, was not executable under any reasonable budget. The program, started by President George W. Bush, had been underfunded and had faced technical challenges for years. The commissions offered two alternatives. The first was Moon First, which would have focused America’s efforts on a return to the moon. The second was Flexible Path, which would have sent American astronauts to every destination besides the moon—the asteroids, the moons of Mars, and so on. Both options would lead to the holy grail of space exploration enthusiasts, a mission to Mars.

The kicker was that both options would cost an extra $3 billion a year for NASA to execute. For the Obama administration, which was not shy about spending money in areas that it cared about, this price tag was too dear to bear. 

The government’s response was formulated in secret. The results of these private deliberations were rolled out in the 2011 budget request that was released in February 2010. Project Constellation would be canceled, root and branch. Instead, NASA would conduct studies of heavy-lift rockets, deep-space propulsion, and other technologies that it was said, in the fullness of time, would make exploring space cheaper and easier.

Congress, which had not been consulted, reacted with bipartisan fury. The Obama administration made two critical errors. It had not consulted with Congress or anyone else when it developed its plans to kill Constellation. The White House also blatantly pulled a bureaucratic dodge that was apparent even to a first-term member of the House from the sticks. To kill a popular program, one studies it to death. Nowhere in the Obama plan was there a commitment to send astronauts anywhere. Clearly, the White House had no intention of doing space exploration. President Obama had expressed an antipathy to American exceptionalism, and nothing speaks to that quality than American astronauts exploring other worlds.

When Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, Gene Cernan, the last man on the Moon, and Jim Lovell, the hero of Apollo 13, sent an open letter condemning the cancellation of Constellation, President Obama knew he had a problem on his hands. So, with Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin in tow as a political prop, Obama went down to the Kennedy Space Center to make his big space announcement. We would go to Mars, sometime in the next 30 years and visit an Earth-approaching asteroid before that. We would not go back to the moon because we had already been there. 

Of course, Obama was no more interested in exploring space than he was before. The Journey to Mars, as NASA eventually called it, was set so far into the future, the mid-2030s, as to be meaningless. Mars was the bright, shiny object to distract people from the vacuous nature of Obama’s space policy. 

Congress mandated the development of the Orion spacecraft and the heavy-lift Space Launch System, with designs meticulously spelled out to deny NASA any wiggle room to play slow walk games. These bits of hardware will be available around the end of the decade along with commercial vehicles.

Obama wasted eight years that might have been spent getting Americans beyond low Earth orbit. The Journey to Mars has been the ObamaCare of space exploration–expensive, unsustainable, and not designed to do what it is alleged to do. Part of the mandate of the current president to make America great again will be to turn that situation around and America back toward the stars.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has just published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. Follow him at @MarkWhittington

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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