Politics: the final frontier

NASA has been all over the map for the past few years — cancelling one program only to start another, only to be later cancelled itself. The longest running space program, the U.S. space shuttle program, is nearing its long talked about death.

First established in 1972, the program is supposed to be completely terminated as of 2012; spanning at a total of 41 years, the program has cost nearly $200 billion after inflation is taken into account.

In 2008, NASA began development of the Ares I rocket for the Constellation program. It was part of a larger plan to return to the moon, championed by former U.S. President George W. Bush, and itself part of an even more ambitious project aimed at eventually sending humans to Mars.

In 2009, the Ares I booster rocket had its first test flight and was successful. The Ares I features a very slender first stage on the bottom then a much fatter second stage on top.

According to Space.com, $9 billion has already been spent on the Ares I and Constellation program, including a mobile launch platform and designs for the Ares V, a heavy-lift variant.

In April 2010, now U.S. President Barrack Obama switched gears and told NASA to focus on getting to an asteroid by 2025 and then Mars for 2030. With this new mission comes a new rocket.

The Space.com article, “Obama Aims to Send Astronauts to Asteroid Then to Mars” investigates an independent study, which concluded that it was impossible for the Constellation program to accomplish its goal of reaching the moon by 2020. As a result, Obama proposed scrapping the program.

Obama said to a private audience in April:

“I understand that some believe we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here. We’ve been there before [ . . . ]. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do,” said Obama.

“So, I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach and operate at a series of increasingly demanding targets while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward. And that’s what this strategy does. And that’s how we will ensure that our leadership in space is even stronger in this new century than it was in the last.”

The current issue that’s unfolding is that NASA feels that they won’t be able to build the new rocket using the $8 billion left over from the Constellation’s budget.

“We have done calculations with current models and approaches to doing this type of development and it doesn’t work with funding constraints combined with schedules that were laid out in the Authorization Act,” Doug Cooke, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, told CNN.

CNN later spoke with Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida who said, “NASA must stop making excuses and follow this law. I believe the best and brightest at the space agency can build upon the $9 billion we’ve already invested in advanced technology to design a new heavy-lift rocket, while taking a stepping-stone, pay-as-you-go approach.”

However, despite concerns from NASA, during his April 2010 announcement Obama said, “We will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it. I want everyone to understand that’s at least two years earlier than was previously planned.”

During that time, Obama proposed a $19 billion budget to be given to NASA this year with an additional $6 billion over the next five years.

Currently, this budget is pending approval, and it seems if the Republicans get their way, this budget (among others under current review) could be reduced.
Who knew this much politics were involved in putting a person on the moon?