President Barack Obama traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida today (April 15, 2010) and addressed the scientists, engineers, astronauts and others gathered at NASA about his goals for the space program of the future.
Noted Obama,”It was here that NASA lunched Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Hubbell Telescope.” Obama, reminisced about being held on his grandfather’s shoulders in 1961 in Hawaii to observe the return of astronauts from space. He said, “I have been part of that generation inspired by the space program…As president, I believe that space exploration is an essential part of our nation. So, today, I’d like to talk about a new chapter in space exploration.”
BACKGROUND OF SPACE RACE
Recapping history and the space race we ran with Russia back in the day, Obama tried to explain that we are no longer in the position that our cold war with Russia put us in back in 1957 and beyond. He did not, however, repudiate the space program, but, instead, repeated his commitment to NASA, pointing out that it was Bush the younger, 8 years ago, who decreed that the next 3 launches of the Challenger will be its last, due to cost constraints. That was not Obama’s decision, but George W. Bush’s.
Obama said, “I am 100% committed to the mission of NASA and its future. Because, if we fail to press forward we are ceding our imperative to press forward, and that’s part of our national character.”
Obama also went on to say, “People, for years, have neglected NASA’s mission.” He cited a reluctance to set objectives and to allocate funds and said, “All that has to change.” Therefore, Obama announced that, at a time when budgetary constraints are causing most programs to be cut or frozen, the budget for space exploration would increase by $6 billion dollars over the next 5 years. He went on to say, “NASA’s budget has risen and fallen with the political winds,” a practice which he decried.
Some of the initiatives that Obama announced for NASA included ramping up robotic exploration of space, going to Mars, launching a successor to the Hubbell Telescope and extending the life of the International Space Station. The president announced that, at a time of freezes, NASA must work hand-in-hand with an array of private sector corporations and said, “NASA has always worked well with the private sector.” Obama said that, with new companies competing, the pace could be accelerated and that “we must build on the good work already done on the Orion endeavor. Orion will be readied for flight right here in this room.”
Another pledge was $3 billion for research to develop a new vehicle to reach deep space. He announced the plan to “finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it.” This is at least 2 years earlier than previous plans, Obama noted. He announced that research should be made into ways to live and work in space for longer periods of time.
Said the president, “These are the questions that we can and will answer. We will not just continue on the same path, but leap into the future.” He referred to these goals as “transformative strategies.” Noting that the Constellation program was not fulfilling its goals, he declared that the administration would take a look at it and try to improve it, but repeated, “Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am.” He pledged, “We will actually reach space sooner and more often,” with the partnership between NASA and the private sector. “We will send many more astronauts into space over the next decade.”
Obama pledged to invest in groundbreaking research, to set a course with achievable milestones. “By 2025, the first ever missions beyond the moon and into deep space” will take place. He mentioned potentially visiting an asteroid. By the mid 2030’s he said that the United States will journey to Mars and back and noted, “And I expect to be around to see it.”
Been There/Done That:
Obama downplayed the idea of going back to the moon, saying, “Some say, moon first. We’ve been there before.” He pledged, instead, that the development of deep-space propulsion systems would be critical to the space program he supports. In poo-poohing a return to the moon, he said, “I believe it’s much more important to ramp up, and that’s how we’ll insure that our exploration will be much more in the next century than it was in the last.”
Jobs Creation for Space Exploration:
Obama pledged, 2,500 jobs along the space coast, more than under his predecessor, George W. Bush. He furthermore pledged to modernize the Kennedy Space Center. Third on his list was the promise of (potentially) 10,000 more jobs in the private sector that would be allied with the government’s space program. He did note, “Some will see their jobs end (a decision made 8 years ago) when the Constellation program comes to an end, but I have directed a $40 million initiative to develop a plan for regular job growth to be on my desk by August 15th of this year.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER IN SPACE EXPLORATION
Said Obama, “So this is the next chapter that we can reach together, right here at NASA.” He encouraged a “step-by-step push of the boundaries.” He urged a push for ways for people to live in space, calling it “humanity’s role in space.”
To the rhetorical question, “Why spend money on NASA, on space exploration, at all?” Obama answered: “You and I know this is a false choice. For pennies on the dollar, space exploration has inspired generations of Americans, creating jobs, etc….I want to say clearly that is exactly why it is important that we push limits,” but he urged “clear aims” and “a larger purpose.”
Obama called the moon landing achieved under President John F. Kennedy in 1969 “one of the greatest achievements in human history.”
BEGINNING OR ENDING?
He added, “Is this a beginning or an ending of the space program? I choose to believe that this is the beginning of something, not the end of something.” He repeated that the race into space helped define the United States and that the decision to retire the space shuttle after 3 more missions was made by “W” some time ago.
I watched the live speech on the Fox news channel, and I expected to hear derision and nay saying after the inspiring speech. The paid talking head was remarkably positive towards the president’s message. However, the “expert” that Fox hired to be interviewed (Homer Hickam, supposedly a former NASA engineer), upheld Fox’s anti-Obama bias almost to the point of being ludicrous and laughable. Hickam said, “If you want to talk about dinosaur bones, I’m your man” as the segment wound down, which had little or nothing to do with the issue of Obama’s speech on space exploration.
Hickam’s comments included these: “I just hope the people in charge don’t mess it up so bad that we can’t fix it.” (Oh. You mean like Bush did for 8 years? We’re all familiar with that strategy.)
He claimed that Obama has “a bad team” in John Holderin, his space expert. (I was tempted to ask, “There are worse team than those assembled by “W” when in office, including Brownie and Rumsfeld?) Hickam added, “They don’t have the ability to organize a Boy Scouts’ Jamboree,” which seemed, even for Fox, to be hyperbole. After the additional comment that, “I think the people he’s got in charge don’t have a clue,” the Hickam person held up his handheld GPS, his cell phone ( he would have held up a microwave and a flat screen televison, if he had been given more time and ones that were small enough), claiming that all of these developments came to us courtesy of NASA.
Hickam said, “That GPS saved my life when I was out there in the desert looking for dinosaur bones” (?) and went off on a conversational tangent about dinosaur bones. I am unsure where this so-called “expert” came from or under what conditions he left NASA, but the Obama speech was really inspiring and, in direct contradiction of Hickam’s later accusation that it was “so vague,” the speech set actual deadlines for many of these space initiatives, which is something I do not remember hearing from any president since JFK. Four of them are mentioned in the paragraphs above. The speech was interrupted by spontaneous applause by the NASA scientists and engineers on several occasions.
I spent 3 weeks in Florida in January and February. NASA workers there were understandably concerned about their futures. This speech went a long way towards reassuring top-notch current NASA workers (Homer Hickam is not among that group). After this speech, they should feel more reassured that their jobs are not going away. This will help prevent a brain drain of our top researchers. Obama’s commitment to the cause of space exploration, just as his commitment to passing a health care bill, seemed real and genuine during today’s speech.