A victory for aerospace pork


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Update: See my partial retraction here.

The NASA budget announced today by the White House proves how right I was when I stated back on July 8, 2010 that I had no faith in Obama’s new-found commitment to private commercial space. The new budget reduces the funds for private commercial space while putting the bulk of its support behind the unbuildable program-formerly-called Constellation. First read what I wrote in July:

The problem is that I simply do not believe the Obama administration. Everything I have learned about the current President, including the specifics (or lack thereof) of his proposal, tells me that none of his promises are going to be fulfilled.

First, Obama himself has previously expressed a hostility to NASA and the space program. Early in the campaign in 2007, when he was not yet well known and could be more up front about his real beliefs, he stated that he believed NASA was a low priority and that the money would be better used to fund education programs. Though his more recent speeches have lauded the importance of space exploration, they have not been convincing to me. His words have seemed hollow and cliched.

My doubts were further substantiated by the new National Space Policy announced in early July. As I noted then, the sense I got “from reading the Obama policy is a focus not in pushing outward to explore the unknown, to go where no one has ever gone before, but on looking back at the Earth to make things on Earth better.” More proof came with the statements of NASA administrator Charles Bolden shortly thereafter in his interview with al-Jazeera. His priorities — as expressly assigned to him by President Obama — was to inspire kids, improve international relations, and help the Muslim world, not invigorate the American private aerospace industry and explore the solar system.

Then there is the Obama administration proposal itself. As it is often said, the devil is in the details. A close look strongly suggests that the subsidies for the new private companies will never occur.

First, the details are vague, if non-existent. The budget plans say the administration wants to commit a lot of money to several high-technology flagship missions, but lay out absolutely no specifics on what those flagship missions will be. Nor do they provide any specifics for how they intend to help the new private space companies develop the manned capabilities to replace the shuttle.

Second, the way the Obama plan was announced and marketed has demonstrated how incredibly tone deaf this administration is to political needs. The decision to kill both the shuttle program and the Constellation program at the same time is wrenchingly drastic, especially during these very bad economic times. Obama is putting tens of thousands of people out of work at a time when new jobs and new investment are hard to find. And he is doing it in many Congressional districts that face reelection in November.

So today, Obama announced his 2012 budget and we learn how accurate the above analysis is. I didn’t get it all right, but I think the bulk remains true. Rather than fight for his private space program, Obama has instead folded, reducing the subsidizes for the new ISS space ferries to about $850 million per year (from last year’s proposed $1 billion per year). (And don’t be surprised if Congress, faced with unending debt, cuts this program back further and Obama goes along.)

Meanwhile, Obama has thrown most of his remaining support for manned space — at just under $4 billion per year — behind Congress’s new heavy-lift rocket, what I call the program-formerly-called-Constellation, which Congress micromanaged into existence last year. And as I have also said, this Congressionally-designed rocket will never get built, as it is requires NASA to build it and provides the bloated space agency far too little money or time to get it done. The billions will get spent, but instead of building a new rocket to the stars, it will be spent for pork, funneling cash to Congressional districts and the old aerospace companies who, like NASA, are too bloated to get anything accomplished for the cash provided.

The final result: no viable government-funded American space program, which is just what Obama declared he wanted back in 2008 during the campaign. Instead, as Obama also declared, we have increased spending for education.

Seeing the death of our government space program is not necessarily a bad thing. Considering the debt, the federal government can’t really afford such a program anyway. As I said yesterday, maybe those who want to get into space should either buy their own ticket with their own money, or build their own aerospace products that they can sell to those who can afford to buy that ticket.

And there are a lot of people and countries who want to get into space, including NASA. These customers need rockets and spacecraft to get there, and there are a lot of American individuals and companies with the skills and creative abilities to provide those rockets and spacecraft. It is time for the American space industry to go cold turkey: Stop depending on the drug of government funding and go out and sell their product to real customers, thereby making a real industry out of space exploration.

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