Originally published in The Orlando Sentinel on January 23, 2010
The first year of the Obama administration is over and its anniversary celebrated on the nation’s op-ed pages with hand wringing and a fair amount of disappointment. This was, I suppose, inevitable for an administration that began with so many of us hearing what we wanted to hear and projecting our own hopes and desires onto a young, appealing and articulate politician. That’s done. Nuff said. Let’s move on, put our disappointment aside and seriously consider what the next three, or seven, years of Obama will really look like. Like many administrations before it, this turns largely on gauging the willingness to pay a near-term political price to achieve long-term goals. Interestingly, a very clear test case should soon be decided in a policy matter of particular concern to Florida, a situation where a relatively small decision will reveal much about the political courage of this administration.
The test case is a NASA boondoggle called Ares I.
Supposedly a “safe, simple, and soon” launch vehicle for NASA’s new astronaut capsule, Ares I is years behind schedule, over budget, and in its current incarnation will shake the astronauts like paint being mixed at the Home Depot. Ares I is really just pork dressed up as cost-effective human space transportation; not just wasteful, but destructive to future space exploration beyond Earth orbit.
Even before the inauguration, rumors were flying that Ares I would be put out of its misery. By late spring an impressive committee was recruited to take an independent look at America’s human spaceflight programs. They worked hard through the summer, delivering a report in the fall that detailed a number of compelling options which pointedly did not include completion of the Ares I. The final decision now rests with the White House.
The case against Ares I is overwhelming. It is overpriced, unnecessary, competes directly with private spaceflight providers and will take so long to develop that it has already created a several years long “gap” in US crewed access to space. The commercial alternatives are based on well-tested, mature systems currently used to launch U.S. military, scientific, and commercial satellites. Adapting these rockets to carry people is cheaper, faster and better. The claim made by vested interests that an Ares I based on untested systems designed by government bureaucrats, who have no experience successfully designing any flight hardware in two generations, would somehow be safer than rockets based on proven systems and built by the best and most experienced rocket engineers money can buy, defies all logic and experience.
The case for Ares I is simple. Several powerful politicians want to bring home the bacon. It’s not even that Ares I creates more jobs than the commercial alternatives. In the long term it actually creates fewer jobs because private sector rockets can sell into a growing international market. The difference is that the jobs created by Ares I go to companies and states that currently work on the retiring Space Shuttle. In effect, it’s a bailout for a few Shuttle contractors.
So here we are with the space community waiting for a decision from the White House. This isn’t a hard call, Mr. President. This isn’t complicated like Afghanistan, health care, financial reform or cap & trade. This isn’t rocket science. We understand that you have bigger fish to fry. This is only about America’s future in space. This is only about the dreams of millions of people, many of them children. The choice is clear. Political expediency vs. the best interests of the nation. We await your decision.