Thursday, May 13, 2010

Canceling human space flight one of Obama's accomplishments

In possibly the most stunning reversal in the history of space exploration, the Obama administration has canceled the next generation US manned space launch program as the current shuttle system is retired. For the first time in the 50 years since the dawn of spaceflight, the US will lack the capability to send humans into space, except by buying rides on Russian spacecraft.

The administration says that it will encourage small American companies to provide space transportation, but they are far from having that capability, and no one knows when they will. Obama has decided instead to put more money into "advanced technologies" for re-developing a space capability at some unknown future date.

Many in the aging group of Apollo astronauts, who are normally adverse to public statements, have harshly criticized this move. Lunar explorer Eugene Cernan said, the Obama plan is “a blueprint for a mission to nowhere.” Neil Armstrong said in testimony before the US Senate, “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is allowed simply to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered.”

This is especially ironic because the last couple of shuttle flights will finish the building of the International Space Station, into which we have poured tens of billions of dollars. Now we won't have a way to get there, except by depending on the good will of our Russian friends.

We are not only losing the ability to put humans into orbit, we will lose most of the technical infrastructure, the people skills, necessary to build the large, reliable rockets necessary to propel people into space, as well as the considerable skills of the astronaut corps which have been developed over the past 50 years. Now our astronauts will simply be passengers on Russian spacecraft. Already the first of thousands of technicians at NASA and its support companies are being laid off. Most will never return.

When another administration reverses this policy, much of our capability will have to be re-built from scratch. That will take years. We are now probably decades away from having the capability we have had for the past half century.

Of all the boneheaded decisions by this administration, this ranks right up there with the worst.

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