April 25, 2010, 8:00AM
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. _ Today, our ation’s space program stands at a crossroads. President Obama’s proposed cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program would destroy any chance that the United States will lead the way back to the moon and beyond.
It is the wrong course. In their first attempt at space policy, this administration proposed to completely eliminate every aspect of NASA’s current human space flight program. No less than two months later, after significant bipartisan opposition, the president tried to sell an altered proposal that still ends human space flight.
This new plan does not represent advancement in policy or an improvement upon the Constellation program, but a continued abdication of America’s leadership in space. The president replaced one visionless plan with another.
Our nation has invested $9 billion in Constellation to establish an extended human presence on the moon and pursue human exploration beyond low earth orbit.
The findings in the administration’s own Augustine report found that the Constellation program is largely on track and within the original funding profile.
A central component of Constellation, the Ares rocket, completed a successful test flight in October of 2009. The following month, Ares received global acclaim as TIME Magazine’s best invention of the year.
Disregarding this investment and progress, the administration proposed discarding the foundation of American human space exploration without a demonstrated alternative capability or even a vaguely defined mission.
If Congress were to approve the president’s plan, America would relinquish its leadership position in space to Russia, China, and India.
We would instead rely on untested and unproven “private” companies for our future in space.
Anyone who believes that it is in our nation’s best interest to rely on these commercial space companies need only examine their track records.
Of those currently under contract to deliver just cargo – not human beings – to space for the government, one has failed to move beyond sketches on paper, another is already two years behind schedule and projecting years more of delays, and a third cannot even estimate when it will be ready for an initial test flight.
There also appears to be no evidence beyond a cursory examination by the Augustine Commission that NASA has done any in-depth safety analysis of putting humans on commercial vehicles.
In a resounding rebuke to the Augustine Commission Report, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, whose sole focus is to ensure that lives are not needlessly lost in our space program, stated in its 2009 report that no commercial manufacturer “is currently human-rating requirements qualified, despite some claims and beliefs to the contrary.”
This is in addition to the Panel’s 2008 report, written in part by the current NASA administrator, that declared commercial vehicles “are not proven to be appropriate to transport NASA personnel.”
Current commercial vehicles are untested and unworthy of carrying some of our nation’s most valuable assets - our astronauts. Yet these companies represent the quicksand foundation on which President Obama has placed his faith to deliver humans safely to space.
We should demand accountability from these failed providers.
The president’s budget would instead create a welfare program for them. The president proposes rewarding the commercial space industry and rocket hobbyists with an additional $312 million bailout to supplement their current contracts in the hope that they will actually be able to deliver something some day.
To be clear, the president’s proposal would redirect current funding, not save taxpayers’ money. And what will happen if the commercial rocket market fails to materialize? American taxpayers will once again be called upon for a bailout which is a recurring theme within this administration.
While a thriving national space program may be expensive, so too is the cost of failure. If the president’s budget is enacted, NASA will no longer be the agency of innovation, technological advances, and inspiration.
Our nation will lose one of its symbols of global power and prestige. As President Kennedy declared in 1962, “no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.” His statement rings true today.
The administration shows it is no longer committed to robust space exploration in proposing to terminate Constellation, the one program that is actually capable of making it happen. There is no realistic successor to NASA’s programs for human space flight.
Constellation is the only way forward to maintain America’s leadership in space and keep our astronauts safe.
The president’s “bold new course for spaceflight” would abdicate America’s role as the world leader in space and place our space program on route to global irrelevance.
This plan would destroy 40 years of U.S. space supremacy by pinning our hopes for success on unproven commercial companies.
Hope is not a strategy. The Obama Administration is on a mission to nowhere.
Richard Shelby is the senior U.S. Senator from Alabama and is the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee which determines funding for NASA.