Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Five Years ago: "Saving" Space and Changing Directions

Five years ago, President Barack Obama visited the Space Coast to give a speech justifying his cancellation of the NASA Constellation Program. Politics aside, I knew that our new president was not interested in space when his early presidential campaign stance was to cut NASA's budget to fund federal education programs. He further proved the point by canceling the major human exploration mission without bothering to come up with a replacement. (Whether Constellation should have been canceled is a topic for another time.)

When the President said that we'd been there, done that with astronauts on the Moon, I was furious. Not only is that ignorant, it's insultingly untrue from a scientific and technological point of view. Of course, Apollo was also about politics and not science. But what goes around comes around. Commercial space: a good idea but not a new idea. Mars: the ultimate goal, but how to get there? I've met the planetary scientist who proposed the Asteroid Retrieval/Redirect Mission and he's the only person I've ever met who is in fully agreement with that direction. The NASA Advisory Council is recommending and NASA is finally admitting that the Moon or cislunar space will be the next step in NASA's human exploration.

Five years ago, I attended a Save Space community rally in Cocoa in conjunction with President Obama's visit. Thousands of people attended. Here is what I wrote in my personal journal:

President Obama's cancellation of the Constellation program will devastate the Space Coast area and many other communities around the country. Thousands of jobs will be lost from the retirement of the Space Shuttle program and the lack of a replacement program in the KSC area alone. There will be direct and indirect casualties. The engineers and technicians will be hit the hardest, which will affect the KSC support staff, which will affect the general populations of the surrounding towns which provide food, goods, and services to these newly unemployed people who may need to move away.

It will seriously damage the Space Coast community who rely on the work and workforce (which totally busts the bubbles of clueless people who think we're wasting money by spending it in space, because we're actually spending it on people in all 50 states around the country for the betterment of our communities, our nation, and our world).

There were a fair number of politicians present, including a U.S. senator, two house representatives, a lieutenant governor, and a dozen or so local elected officials. As expected, speeches lacked substance. Most of them were general "go space!" talks, telling the President what he should say and do at this week's space summit at KSC. Two were completely out of left field by talking about sustaining military superiority by using space as a high ground, which made me think they had no idea why they were at the rally because military space programs have nothing to do with human space exploration, are not under NASA's budget, and are in no danger of being cut.

Finally, the three invited astronauts gave their speeches. Jon McBride (STS-41-G) called Constellation an unfunded mandate and demanded that the federal government provide sufficient funding for space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, mentioning the great investment and returns from NASA such as spin-off technologies. Winston Scott (STS-72, STS-87) emphasized that we need to support commercial space development but not at the expense of NASA and mentioned inspiring Florida Tech students to enter space careers. Bob Springer (STS-29, STS-38) asked the Presidential Administration to step up and have shared accountability.

I called it: the cancellation of Constellation did damage the Space Coast community for several years following and many people did move away. I resurrected the local chapter of the National Space Society and created a space lecture series focused on local achievements to highlight that not all was lost. I also knew that the area would bounce back in time, and is has. Diversification and the influx of commercial space companies has helped. Here's hoping for better times ahead!


  1. Cancelling Constellation did little to damage the local economy. The number of Constellation jobs here in the Space Coast were going to be very few for many years. The Ares I-X test was in 2009. The next one, Ares I-Y, was scheduled for 2013. The Augustine Committee found that the real Ares I wouldn't actually fly until at least 2017, and was in danger of slipping to 2019.

    The fact of the matter is that United Space Alliance people were given notice by President Bush in January 2004 that their Shuttle contractor jobs would disappear when the ISS was built circa 2010. Depending on whose numbers you look at, the job loss was somewhere between 7,000 - 9,000 contractors.

    The NASA workforce at KSC since the doors opened in 1963 has always been about 80% contractors. There's a good reason for that. The taxpayer shouldn't pay to keep people around being paid for work when there's no work to do. Those who are employed by contractors should be well aware of this.

    NASA civil servants didn't lose their jobs. By law, they had to be offered jobs elsewhere in the agency. If they turned it down, that's their business. But today KSC is filled with civil servants who were transferred to make-work jobs from Shuttle because Congress required their jobs be protected.

    Not so for contractors. And let's not forget that USA contractors were paid a generous severance to stick around to the end of the Shuttle program.

    NASA is not workfare. Somewhere along the line, people began thinking it was a jobs program. Whether NASA ever accomplished anything, well, that wasn't all too important. There was no consequence for faliure.

    Does President Obama care about spaceflight? None of us can read his mind, but I think he does. There are plenty of different ways to care about exploration. For example, you can create competition in the private sector to spur entrepreneurs to invest in opening space to the masses. You can also focus on robotic exploration, which is far cheaper and safer because it doesn't risk lives.

    Laura, you wrote yourself that "Diversification and the influx of commercial space companies" has brought back the local space economy. Whose administration do you think it is that created an environment favorable to that?

    I guarantee you that S3, Stratolaunch, XCOR, Masten, Bigelow, SpaceX and all the other NewSpacers circling around the Cape right now would still be outside the chain link fence if the current administration hadn't put an end to the old way of doing business.

    It was this administration that solicited non-profits to open up the ISS to commercial enterprise, which led to CASIS. At Sunday's pre-launch presser, we heard representatives from three different companies talk about using the ISS for microgravity research. Certainly, you know about that, and how CASIS has fought the NASA bureaucracy to let go. Again, this wouldn't be possible except for the current administration forcing NASA to open the gates.

    Bigelow is a very viable market in the future for these companies because the current administration signed unfunded Space Act Agreements to encourage them to put a prototype on the ISS. And the current administration also gave Bob Bigelow an unfunded SAA to produce a report on how to do a commercial cislunar program with technologies currently being developed by the NewSpacers.

    So I ask, how much of all this would be happening right now if President Obama had gone along with the great Constellation hoax and continued to pour billions of dollars down that sewer hole?

    Sorry to be blunt, but I think people here need to be honest about just how badly inbred was NASA and about its general inability to achieve anything on time or on budget. In the private sector, no investor in their right mind would put billions of dollars into a company run like NASA.

  2. Sorry Stephen, you missed my point. Canceling Constellation without offering a replacement did a lot of lot of damage, more damage than keeping it or offering a new ObamaSpacePlan 5 years ago would have. It most definitely did hurt the area in many visible ways. Those who worked on Shuttle now had nowhere to go. Worse, morale was down and outsiders thought that NASA was canceled altogether. I agree that NASA isn't a jobs program, that's not my point. The way the whole thing was handled 5 years ago was a mess and we're still paying for it.

    The debate isn't about old way versus new way. That's overly simplistic and a false premise that rubs me the wrong way. The debate in this blog entry is the way it was done, the process, the speech 5 years ago and the subsequent actions. You know as well as I that NASA's commercial space initiative began in the Bush Jr. Administration. It's a process that spans many years and is incremental. Even government agencies slowly change with the times.

    I'm not arguing here one way or the other whether Constellation should have been canceled or not. That's a topic for your own blog. My goal here was to recall the events of five years ago and give my impression at the time and my impression now, honestly. My blog, my space to be honest with my readers.

  3. President Obama is just one of a long list of politicians, starting with Nixon, that have a very cynical view of the government's role in human space travel.

    Commercial Crew development was Obama's attempt to get the Federal government out of the human spaceflight business so that most of those NASA human spaceflight related funds could be used for social programs.


    1. Unfortunate, but true. I've not see a US president who truly cared about space exploration.

      You have to remember that the Commercial Crew Program began under the Bush Administration. Kudos to President Obama for keeping it and promoting it.

  4. A huge spin off came from the strong incentive to reduce mass and volume of electronics. There are some (like Neil DeGrasse Tyson) who credit NASA with getting Moore's Law rolling. I think Tyson over states NASA's role, the miniaturization of electronics was inevitable. However NASA and military contracts did help put U.S. companies at the forefront of this electronics revolution.

    So far as I can see Constellation was Apollo Redux. Ditto SLS. What envelopes are we pushing by making the biggest rockets?

    Should we want to build infra-structure on asteroids or the moon, robotics is the technology we need to focus on. Already improved robotics are enabling work on the seafloor, in war zones and other dangerous and/or difficult to reach places.

    Improved robotics has the potential for many spin offs. I would have loved to see NASA leading the pack blazing new trails on this frontier. But DARPA, Google, Rio Tinto, British Petroleum and other entities are upstaging NASA in this regard.

    Speaking as a space enthusiast and tax payer, recreating the BFRs of the sixties is a waste of money.

    1. Improving robotics is essential. Improved rocketry and propulsion is also essential. Unless you're suggestion that we conduct multiple smaller rocket launches to launch payloads, we need some means of getting said robotics and infrastructure into space in the first place. For commercialization (and by that I mean profit), cost-efficient rockets are needed.