Before I begin, I would like to apologize for my long absence from the blogosphere. Applying for scholarships, finishing the semester and celebrating the holidays have taken up most of my time. However, I couldn't have chosen a better time to return to blogging, for very recently President Obama has made an important decision that will change the future of space exploration... for the worse.
President Obama is proposing to scrap the Ares system in favor of developing commercial crewed spacecraft. He further hopes to end the Moon program while extending the life of the International Space Station. Some would say that this follows the Augustine Commission's "Flexible Path." However, there is a clear difference between the Commission's path and the president's plan: the president does not appear to have any support for missions beyond low earth orbit whatsoever, while the commission proposed that we use Orion to visit the Lagrangian points and near Earth asteroids. Clearly, there is a huge difference between these two "Visions for Space Exploration."
I will admit one thing, the Moon program wasn't all it was cracked up to be. It didn't have as much focus on preparing for Mars as it should have had, and the thing was horrendously underfunded by the U.S. government. However, at least the Moon program would have taken us beyond LEO for the first time in years, and it had a decent chance of setting up a moon base, a valuable asset that might have given NASA a "foot in the door" to ensure future funding, including possibly funding for going to Mars. On the other hand, Obama's plan has no money for going beyond LEO. However, this is hardly the worst part of his new strategy.
The worst part of his new strategy is the amount of time and money it wastes. We have spent years and billions of dollars designing Project Constellation, yet now we are going to throw that all on the scrapheap of history. I know that Ares I wasn't the most-popular rocket in history, but he even proposes to end the Ares V program, which was much-praised by his own commission and the space community in general. Without the Ares V, we have no way of reaching the moon.
Okay, maybe not no way. A recent NASA study has suggested a shuttle-derived heavy payload system to replace the Ares system. However, this system would do little to make-up for the loss of Ares V. It has less payload capacity, is mounted on the side of a large booster tank covered in foam, and is a little bit ugly. They have proposed an initial plan for a Moon mission with this vehicle. However, with its limited space and payload capacity I doubt that we could go much farther than that. I'll admit that this spacecraft would be better than no ride at all. However, this vehicle still has yet to go beyond the proposal stage, and it doesn't seem that Obama is supporting this vehicle yet either.
And now, to the subject of commercial vehicles. I'll admit, I am a big supporter of SpaceX, the company most-likely to benefit from Obama's focus on supporting commercial crew vehicles. They are the only private company with a plausible orbital vehicle even remotely close to being fully developed. I also am giving them the benefit of the doubt on safety (space.com's "This Week in Space" has an interesting interview on the current feud between SpaceX and the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel). However, let's face it; the SpaceX Dragon is no Orion. As a matter of fact, it's not even as good as the Shuttle; at least that had a huge cargo bay. The Dragon has no huge cargo bay, yet it can't go any further than the Shuttle. It may be one giant leap forward for commercial space, but it is one small step backward for the American Space Program.
However, even if the Dragon were a comparable vehicle to Orion, I would not support its usage. Why? Because the Dragon is not ready yet! It won't be ready for years! Orion would probably not be ready until around 2017. We don't even KNOW when the Dragon will be ready for a crew, if it is ever ready. Although the Dragon is preparing for test flights with cargo, it is launching on a rocket that has less testing than even the Ares I system, and like I said, SpaceX is still only testing to see if the Dragon can deliver cargo. So what does this mean? It means that we will be literally BEGGING Russia to take our astronauts on the Soyuz vehicle for an even longer time. With current estimates at the amount of time it will take the Dragon to be ready (ten years, give or take), the space station will probably have been deorbited by the time the Dragon is ready. And considering that the Dragon can only go as far as the space station, this is the cosmic equivalent of "the bridge to nowhere".
So, in summary, Obama's new plan will leave our space program going to LEO on a commercial rocket in ten years. The space station will last until 2020, during which time not only Americans, but the world (with the exception of China) will be dependent on the Russians to take them into space. And during those ten years that the space station will remain up there, we won't even think about going to the Moon and Mars, ensuring that America will not go beyond LEO for probably two decades at least, plenty of time for the Chinese and Russians to reach the Moon and prepare for going to Mars. Who knows, by the time we realize something is wrong the Europeans, Japanese and Indians, all relative newcomers to space, may be far ahead of America in space technology. Does this sound like a good plan to you?
Why is President Obama doing this? My guess is money. In order to keep the Ares program and all of Project Constellation going at an adequate pace, he is going to need to shove out three billion dollars. His new plan will give no more than one billion extra dollars to NASA. My question is, with all that money we have left over from the stimulus, couldn't we find a few extra dollars for something as important as the space program?
Fortunately, Obama's plan is not going over well in Congress. Senators and representatives from states where the manned space program is important are not happy with the inevitable thousands of layoffs that Obama's plan would result in. Furthermore, despite the low funding, Project Constellation has significant bipartisan support in Congress. Thus, it is likely that Obama's budget may undergo significant changes before it returns to his desk, hopefully all changes for the better. To quote a famous space movie, "Help us, Congress, you're our only hope."
A final note; Michio Kaku gave an excellent critique on Obama's budget proposal, so good a critique that I am including the link below, and excuse me for ranting, but I'm kind of upset.
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