NASA is currently in the midst of a push to develop America's next manned space vehicle as well as a rocket capable of returning to the Moon. What effect will the incoming President Obama have on US space policy?
While NASA makes plans regardless of the political cycles and leanings of government, its budget is decided by Congress and its administrator appointed by the President of the United States; naturally, political cycles in America tend to affect it to some degree. Four years ago, President Bush outlined a Vision for Space Exploration that called for a return to the Moon, both manned and unmanned, and an eventual mission to Mars; this realignment caused a commensurate change in direction within NASA, one that resulted in cuts to earth observation and robotic missions to pay for research and development of Project Constellation and the Ares rocket, Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, and Altair Lunar Surface Access Module that it relies upon. The current economic environment, record deficits, and looming retirement of the Space Shuttle present a challenge for NASA, moving forward, and the new President will have to deftly navigate those challenges. How do the Obama Administration’s goals for the space program mesh with or differ from current US space policy? A space policy paper produced by the Obama campaign suggests a number of distinct divergences with current space policy.
National Aeronautics and Space Council
One major difference the paper proposes is a re-establishment of a coordinating council tasked with looking at the long-term picture of American space exploration and charting a course that combines the efforts of public and private space efforts. If appointments to this council are stable, it holds the promise of a more coherent and less partisan approach to space; at the very least, it may minimize duplication of effort and allow better allocation of the limited resources that NASA has at hand.
Private Sector & International Cooperation
Given the momentum that the X-Prize and private ventures such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have demonstrated, the push to space may finally be reaching a phase that the commercial sector can participate in. Likewise, both China and India are looking to the stars. In economic hard times, it becomes much more difficult to justify a manned space program, or even space exploration at all. Sharing the costs (and benefits) of such an endeavor makes sense from an exploratory, research, economic, and social standpoint, even if there are disadvantages from a technological one. The paper emphasizes in a number of points the need for international cooperation, private sector initiatives when and where they can do things cheaper, and the use of the ISS as a “strategic tool in diplomatic relations".
Much of the document coincides with what might be expected from a new administration on the space front: support for technology initiatives, better technology transfer and cost-sharing between the public and private sectors, and emphasis of the role the space program plays in maintaining the technological base of the United States. Still, Obama’s proposed space policy does highlight, for instance, the need for better linkages between space efforts and the public and initiatives to better integrate K -16 education into the mix, something that, if well executed, could dramatically improve the standing of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in the educational world. Concerning manned space exploration, the document does not specifically mention the Ares rocket and/or Orion Crew Exploration vehicle as the choice for manned spaceflight, moving forward. One has to wonder if that omission is intentional - it would certainly give the President-Elect more room to maneuver in the long run. It does seem that his elaborated space policy differs from his previous policy position of delaying Constellation.