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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Obama's Space Policy Speech 

President Obama gave his long awaited space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center this afternoon, marking some fundamental changes in the way the NASA space program is conducted. Among the highlights:

-Cancellation of the Constellation program designed to return Americans to the Moon, though retaining the Orion crew vehicle as a lifeboat for the International Space Station (ISS) and as a possible test bed for future exploration vehicles.

-Design studies of a new Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV) leading to a decision by 2015 to proceed to build the selected HLV design for human exploration missions.

-Development of other key technologies including propulsion, resource utilization, etc.

-Procuring commercial crew access to the ISS. Before the speech, the President visited the Falcon 9 rocket on its pad awaiting its first launch.

-Robotic precursor missions to precede human exploration of the Moon, asteroids. Mars, etc., along with continuing Earth and space science missions.

-Human deep space exploration beginning around 2025 with an expedition to a near Earth asteroid. A Mars orbital mission around 2035 (I'm guessing establishing a presence on the Martian Moon Phobos) with Mars landings to come sometime later.

So, what does it all mean? On balance, the major changes in terms of turning to commercial access to the ISS and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in general and in developing ground breaking new technologies, an area where NASA spending has stagnated in recent decades, are extremely positive developments that can make our ventures into space more sustainable and enabling of human expansion and settlement on the frontier. The laying out of a long term timetable for exploration objectives is a definite improvement over the more vague promises expressed earlier when the policy change was announced as part of the FY2011 budget request.

The new proposals are still very controversial in the space community itself. One concern that I do share is whether it is really wise to spend up to 5 yrs and ~ $3 billion to design to study an HLV design before committing to building and flying v. taking some of the technology we have from the Shuttle program and developing a rather straightforwardly derived booster that could advance the technology development and exploration schedule by several years. (On the other hand, development of an all liquid fueled HLV would have some operational advantages.)

Also, President Obama seemed dismissive of any reason to return to the Moon as part of the "flexible path" agenda, but there is still much to be gained by establishing a presence on the Moon, perhaps as a public/private partnership, in furthering our expansion into space.

The bigger question is how this new direction is perceived beyond the space community. The cancellation of the Constellation effort (though perhaps inevitable given the apparent technical and financial problems of the Ares rocket family) has been perceived by many as an American retreat from the frontier. This is understandable given the direction and tone of Obama's Earth bound foreign and domestic policies. The long time scale before exploration really gets going also raises concerns about whether it can survive the inevitable shifts in politics over the coming decades.

Expect continuing discussion and debate in Congress and among the public as the new direction is rolled out and better understood.

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