Let’s say you wanted to kill NASA. You couldn’t just blink it out of existence I Dream Of Jeannie style, but you might be able to strangle it to death in bureaucracy. How might you do it?
For starters, you might completely scrap any attempt to return humans to the moon. You might completely scrap any attempt to put men on Mars. Having gotten rid of most of the inspiration that keeps the agency in the public eye, you could make sure there was no chance of reversing course on any reasonable timetable by scrapping the agency’s previous research and cancelling development on the rockets and systems needed to accomplish those goals.
Then you might redirect those and other agency funds into navel-gazing Earth science projects that are supposed to be the domain of agencies like NSF and NOAA, adding bureaucratic conflict in to a recipe already heavily seasoned with dullness. Because if there’s one thing the public is inspired by and not at all sick of, it’s climate science. After all, nobody likes to see the titular Aeronautics and Space that gave us up close and personal exploration of Mars, or Hubble’s images of the cosmos, or far-flung missions to the beautiful outer planets.
As a final frying pan upside the head, you might require that NASA maintain the most expensive and least useful boondoggle of manned spaceflight – the International Space Station. You might do so even knowing that shortly the Space Shuttle program is being phased out and can only launch a few more times – three, currently. You’d make sure the only way to reach the ISS was through the good graces and launch capabilities of our close geopolitical allies the Russians, with a vague possibility of contracting private launches at some point in the future, presumably when such private launch capability exists. It currently doesn’t.
Well, I hope you enjoyed NASA while it lasted because this ain’t hypothetical. It’s Obama’s forthcoming NASA budget.
When the White House releases his budget proposal Monday, there will be no money for the Constellation program that was supposed to return humans to the moon by 2020. The troubled and expensive Ares I rocket that was to replace the space shuttle to ferry humans to space will be gone, along with money for its bigger brother, the Ares V cargo rocket that was to launch the fuel and supplies needed to take humans back to the moon.
There will be no lunar landers, no moon bases, no Constellation program at all.
In their place, according to White House insiders, agency officials, industry executives and congressional sources familiar with Obama’s long-awaited plans for the space agency, NASA will look at developing a new “heavy-lift” rocket that one day will take humans and robots to explore beyond low Earth orbit. But that day will be years — possibly even a decade or more — away.
They also said that the White House plans to extend the life of the International Space Station to at least 2020. One insider said there would be an “attractive sum” of money — to be spent over several years — for private companies to make rockets to carry astronauts there.
Regardless of my opinions of his other policy, me and many other scientists were quite hopeful about Obama’s campaign promises on science and technology. But with bank bailouts and thus-far futile stimulus having already cost about 500 times more than what NASA needs to stay on its manned flight schedule, I’m starting to think that hope was futile.