"All the world's a stage we pass through." - R. Ayana

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Retreat from the New Frontier: US Privatises Space

Retreat from the New Frontier

US Privatises Space


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President Obama’s decision to end U.S. manned space flight programs for the next decade or two is one of the most disappointing things he’s done so far.  By killing the Constellation program, troubled as it may have been, the President has put the U.S. in the position of relying on Russia and maybe China to launch astronauts into space. 

The Russians, of course, never missing an opportunity, want to substantially increase the prices they charge for flying U.S. astronauts.  In fact, the cost is already higher than the prices they have charged rich tourists for rides into space.

The Administration has the nutty idea that manned space flight can be turned over to the commercial sector.  That’s nothing more than an empty alternative, given the costs and the scale of developing and maintaining a reliable capability to regularly launch and recover astronauts. 

I’ve been stewing about this since I first read about the decision to abandon the Constellation program.  I’ve tried to find an upside to it, but I can’t.  Neither can Charles Krauthammer, who wrote today:

By the end of this year, there will be no shuttle, no U.S. manned space program, no way for us to get into space. We’re not talking about Mars or the moon here. We’re talking about low-Earth orbit, which the United States has dominated for nearly half a century and from which it is now retiring with nary a whimper.

Our absence from low-Earth orbit was meant to last a few years, the interval between the retirement of the fatally fragile space shuttle and its replacement with the Constellation program (Ares booster, Orion capsule, Altair lunar lander) to take astronauts more cheaply and safely back to space.

But the Obama 2011 budget kills Constellation. Instead, we shall have nothing. For the first time since John Glenn flew in 1962, the United States will have no access of its own for humans into space — and no prospect of getting there in the foreseeable future.
Of all the things that demonstrated and symbolized the U.S. leadership role in the world, the space program — and the triumphs of manned space flight in particular — is at the top of the list.  As Krauthammer notes, the differences between the beginning and the end are stark:

When John F. Kennedy pledged to go to the moon, he meant it. He had an intense personal commitment to the enterprise. He delivered speeches remembered to this day. He dedicated astronomical sums to make it happen…

Obama’s NASA budget perfectly captures the difference in spirit between Kennedy’s liberalism and Obama’s. Kennedy’s was an expansive, bold, outward-looking summons. Obama’s is a constricted, inward-looking call to retreat.

Fifty years ago, Kennedy opened the New Frontier. Obama has just shut it.

What a shame.

Written by Tom

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