Election result: A bumpy ride still ahead for space policy

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Published on: November 10, 2012

As a lifelong fan of the Minnesota Vikings, an NFL team that has been to the Super Bowl four times and never won the big one, and a team that is well known for looking good and scoring well early in the game, only to fall behind and give it up to lose at the end, I was very well emotionally prepared for the outcome of the presidential election this past week.

While I never was happy with Governor Romney’s campaign rhetoric related to the space program, or the way his campaign was executed in general, my own world view and beliefs are more aligned with the Republicans and that’s the way I voted on Tuesday.

My sole vote for a Democrat went to Senator Nelson, in part because I believe we still need his leadership and seniority in the Senate when it comes to space-related issues, in part because I was truly unimpressed with Congressman Mack, but mostly because I have known Sen. Nelson for a very long time and sometimes you have to vote for the better man than to blindly follow the party ticket.

So, in case you missed it in the news this week, the voters decided to give President Obama another four years to straighten out the mess we’re in. At the same time, the House of Representatives retained its Republican majority, and in the Senate the Democrats will stay in control there.

While political analysts from both sides of the aisle dig into the numbers and exit polls to see what can be learned, many in the space community who worry about such things already are anticipating what all of this will mean for NASA and all those who would seek to do business by launching rockets and spacecraft from Florida’s Space Coast.

As a result, for what it’s worth, here are some random comments and predictions for your consideration.

First, Charlie Bolden will remain as NASA’s Administrator, and I think given the results of the election and the budget environment the space agency will find itself in during the next few years, it would be a good thing if Charlie remains at the helm

Being NASA Administrator is a thankless job, and it’s a tough position to fill when there is a vacancy. Charlie stepped up when asked. If we’re not going to change presidents, then there certainly is no reason to change NASA administrators.

Second, keep an eye on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to see who will replace Rep. Ralph Hall as chairman. This is the committee in the House responsible for setting NASA policy. Of course, the White House and the Senate have a say too.

Three House members who already are committee members are now vying for the job. Dana Rohrabacher from California, James Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin and Lamar Smith from Texas are the candidates for the Republicans to consider.

Each has “interesting” backgrounds and histories related to their work with the committee and their relationships with NASA, and each have their own nuances as to their views on space policy. I’m not sure which of them would be the most ideal leader, but all of them will find a difficult road ahead dealing with a White House and Senate led by the Democrats.

Third, expect to see in the weeks to come more advice offered and direction given about our human spaceflight program as to specific missions and destinations for the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System.

Already there is a growing buzz about NASA soon announcing plans to go back to the Moon, plans that some news accounts claim already are approved by the White House but were being withheld pending the outcome of the election.

We also have seen reports in recent weeks about an emphasis on establishing a small space station at a place in space called L2, one of five points where the tug of gravity between the Earth and Moon balances out and a spacecraft can just sort of hover there.

The benefit of a place like L2 is that it is relatively easy to get to and operate from; a place where we could learn to live and work in deep space while remaining relatively close to home, before heading further out.

A large segment of the activist, pro-space community has been screaming to hear more about concrete plans to go somewhere ever since Orion and SLS were announced as giving us the capability to visit an asteroid sometime in the next decade, and possibly to Mars during the 2030’s. However, without a specific, stated destination and time frame, many say the work on new spacecraft and rockets means nothing.

Complicating matters is that with limited funds, NASA is barely able to afford work on Orion and SLS, and even then only at what seems like a snail’s pace. The space agency has been given no additional money to develop and fly actual missions made possible by the new spacecraft and heavy lift rocket, while also having to operate the space station and pursuing its robotic space exploration.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely NASA will receive additional money during the years to come. The space agency will have to get along with a flat budget while being asked to do all these things anyway. This kind of unsustainable path will only lead to more delays as programs are stretched out or cancelled altogether.

Fourth, watch as the emerging private sector of new space – represented by companies such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin and even Virgin Galactic – continue to move forward with their plans to open up the final frontier to anyone who can afford it.

As our nation’s post-election space policy evolves during the coming months, I believe we’ll see more interest in the idea of the government turning away from the “old way” of doing things and seek out the services of these aerospace entrepreneurs for more than just help ferrying cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Whether or not any of that will actually happen — for example, canceling the Space Launch System development in favor of buying rides for Orion on a Falcon 9 Heavy — we’ll just have to wait and see. All will depend on how successful these companies can be, or continue to be, during the next few years.

There is a lot to be said for the promise of this new commercial space world, and certainly SpaceX so far has made a good show of it. But at the same time, I think there are way too many of my fellow space cadets out there who are way too willing to embrace new space way too quickly, just because it isn’t NASA.

Finally, of course, it will be up to our re-elected president and his administration, working with the competing ideologies of the Republican led House and Democratic led Senate, to take all of these variables, establish a vision for going forward and plot any changes to the course we’re now on with our space program.

The one thing I am sure of following the results of this past Tuesday is that you better strap yourselves in folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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