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Abandoning human space flight is shortsighted

Recent news reports have cited “testy” statements “blasting” the president, offering strong “rebukes” and saying that members of Congress are “girding for battle.” Have we opened a new chapter in the healthcare debate? No, this is over the future of human space flight.

A bipartisan group of legislators from the House and Senate stand in firm opposition to the president’s plan to cancel NASA’s Constellation program. Constellation is NASA’s next-generation system to replace the space shuttle upon its retirement. There only five more flights scheduled. Constellation is the means to return to the moon and eventually on to Mars.  

The administration’s intention to cancel Constellation represents its single largest cut in their FY11 budget proposal. Funds will be shifted to commercial entities to provide crew and cargo to the International Space Station. The life of the ISS has been extended to at least 2020, as it was initially slated to be deorbited in 2015.

It is shortsighted to view abandoning human space flight as the means to portray fiscal discipline. In a budget that increases federal spending, particularly in the areas of science and education, why cut a program that has served as a primary resource for both?  

Then why would the administration turn its back on thousands of high-paying, highly skilled jobs nationwide at this time if jobs are supposed to be the number one priority of this administration?

Japan, India and China have set their sights on the moon. Why are we pulling back America’s dominance in human space flight? It is deplorable that the president would willingly accept second-tier status for the U.S. on an issue of this magnitude.

President Obama said he would take a scalpel to the budget instead of a sledgehammer, but even a scalpel can nick an artery. This decision is the elimination of a job creator, economic innovator and symbol of American exceptionalism.

The administration purports that they are committed to human space flight by saying they have increased NASA’s budget by $1 billion. But the president’s own commission appointed to review human spaceflight said that it would take a minimum of $3 billion to have any kind of robust program.

Since its inception, the challenges American scientists and engineers overcame in getting man into space and on the moon brought forth a slew of cutting-edge technologies that made their way into our daily lives. And now, the administration is willing to throw away a half-century of scientific progress for a sub-orbital taxicab.

The administration would like to foster commercial providers with our human space flight capabilities. Commercial participation is a good thing, and something that everyone agrees with, but it’s simply not ready to take humans into space safely, and should not be the sole means for our country’s access to space.  

Congress twice passed authorization bills, in 2005 and 2008, endorsing Constellation. The administration has disregarded that guidance, and as such has met resistance. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said the administration was not going to back down “just because they (Constellation supporters) have a powerful constituency on the Hill or K Street.”

The constituencies the White House should be worried about are America’s scientists, engineers, and students whom they will discourage through this shortsighted action. They must also acknowledge the loss of thousands of jobs. This action stymies America’s global prominence through yet another shortsighted economic decision by the Obama administration. The president has a voice in the budget process, but Congress does as well. This issue is far from resolved.  

Olson is a member of the House Science and Technology Committee.


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