During the last two weeks, there have been some tantalizing clues as to what the U.S. space exploration policy may look like during President Obama’s administration. First the Obama Transition Team submitted a series of questions to NASA, apparently to gauge various program options and costs for manned space exploration. And then on yesterday morning’s Meet the Press, the President-Elect made a comment that sounded almost Apollo-era in its vision of, and reverence toward, human space exploration.
First consider the questions submitted to NASA. According to Space.com, on November 24 the Obama Transition Team submitted a five-page questionnaire to NASA.
The questionnaire asked NASA to estimate the cost of accelerating the development program for the Orion space capsule and Aries launch vehicle, which together will replace the space shuttle. (As previously noted here, Obama is concerned about the gap between when the shuttle fleet must be retired and when the Orion/Aries spacecraft is ready to fly. Potentially the U.S. could be without spacecraft capable of transporting humans to space for 2–5 years. Accelerating the development of Orion/Aries would reduce that gap.)
The questionnaire also asked NASA about costs and development time for several alternatives to the planned Orion/Aries system. Those alternatives included a redesigned Orion capsule that could be launched on existing international launch vehicles such as the European Ariane 5 or the Japanese H2A, as well as redesigning Orion to be launched using modified versions of existing U.S. rockets such as the Atlas 5 or Delta 4.
John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told Space.com to be cautious against reading too much into the transition team’s questions.
“After all, these are the questions that everyone is asking, and the transition team certainly must get NASA’s best answers to them,” Logsdon said, adding that the questionnaire “is unlikely to reflect the totality” of the transition team’s investigation of current programs and alternatives. “That is likely to take some weeks and involve lots of questions to lots of people. So I would not overinterpret and come to any conclusion regarding what direction the team may be headed — after all, there is still almost two months left in the transition.” Logsdon also said he did not see any significance to the omission of cancellation questions about COTS, space shuttle, space station or other programs.
Then on Sunday morning’s Meet the Press on NBC, while speaking about ways the White House can inspire the country’s young people, Obama mentioned human spaceflight as one way to encourage students to pursue science.
“There is an incredible bully pulpit to be used when it comes to, for example, education. Yes, we’re going to have an education policy. Yes, we’re going to be putting more money into school construction. But, ultimately, we want to talk about parents reading to their kids. We want to invite kids from local schools into the White House. When it comes to science, elevating science once again, and having lectures in the White House where people are talking about traveling to the stars or breaking down atoms, inspiring our youth to get a sense of what discovery is all about.”
On personal note, when the incoming president starts talking about “traveling to the stars,” the geek portion of my brain goes into overdrive. But my rational brain realizes that these particular comments can’t be taken too literally. After all, of the two examples of inspirational science Obama provided, one (“breaking down atoms”) was accomplish over sixty years ago and the other (“traveling to the stars”) is most likely still centuries beyond our current level of technology.
So what does all this tell us about potential U.S. space policy during the upcoming Obama administration?
Through the course of the campaign, we’ve watched as Obama developed from someone with apparently limited understanding of NASA and U.S. space policy (The Candidates’ Stand on Space Exploration) and who advocated pulling money from NASA’s budget to fund education, to a much better informed president-elect whose team is performing due diligence and beyond, examining human spaceflight options available to NASA and even digging into the minutia of competing launch systems. A key turning point in the evolution of Obama’s space policy occurred in August when he dropped his previous proposal to cut NASA’s budget to help fund education initiatives — by October Obama was on the record as supporting a NASA budget increase of $2 billion.
So while we may not see a $1 trillion development of hyperdrive and “[travel] to the stars” during the Obama administration, it’s becoming increasing clear that space exploration will continue and may even increase.