One giant leap backwards

Robert Rivers Contributor
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On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, stepping onto the lunar surface, spoke the now iconic words, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Most Americans born subsequent to that seminal day are not able to appreciate the national pride and world approval shown then for a truly landmark achievement of humankind. And now, 40 years later, these new generations of Americans might just witness the death of America’s human space program.

Since NASA last left the surface of the moon in 1972, it has struggled to find relevance and approbation with the American people. Perhaps NASA’s extraordinary success in “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” from a cold start in less than 10 years jaded America. The Space Shuttle, after being wrongly hyped as providing routine access to space 25 times a year, failed to live up to expectations. Space Station Freedom, in an ill-conceived strategy to spread work to all Congressional districts to ensure funding, found itself in the suicidal position of having administrative costs almost equal development costs and was canceled. Despite many extraordinary successes as well, NASA was unable to reignite the fervor with the American people that existed in those magical Mercury, Gemini and Apollo years. Furthermore, NASA’s direction was steered by the whims of each President rather than by achievable or relevant scientific goals and without regard for the Congressional control of its budget.

In 2003 after the Columbia tragedy, NASA was directed by President Bush to embark on a new vision to send Americans to the Moon and Mars. The goals were noble, but sufficient funding was not earmarked and the Constellation Program, as it was called, ran into problems. Part of Constellation’s mandate was to provide American access to the International Space Station after the Space Shuttle is retired this fall. But, on Feb. 1, 2010, President Obama in his NASA budget request to Congress has quietly stalled, if not killed, America’s future human space program by canceling Constellation. If this budget choice is approved by Congress, America will likely cede its future world technological leadership to China. America will fund the International Space Station, for which Americans have already paid over $60 billion, for an additional five years at $5 billion a year and yet have no way to get there. America will say to Russia, for the next ten years we will pay you whatever you ask for the privilege of sending our astronauts on your rockets to our space station. (Russia has already declared that the price for a ride to the ISS will increase dramatically after our agreements expire in 2012.) America will give up on a program after seven years of development and $9.1 billion in costs that has already successfully tested the prototype rocket that can take Americans back into space. It will take $2.5 billion just to shut down Constellation. It is not hyperbole to use the word “catastrophe” to describe this decision. America needs to understand that after October, we will have no means to launch Americans into space for many years to come.

Hampered by questionable ethics, NASA has been poorly served by its previous three politically appointed Administrators dating back to 1991. Its dysfunctional management culture has been cited as a causal factor in the loss of shuttles Challenger and Columbia and their crews. One reason that NASA’s management culture has drifted to the dark side is that its budget process invariably requires deceit. But just how much of the federal budget are we even talking about? NASA’s 2009 budget of around $17.8 billion was less than 0.6% of the 2009 Federal budget. It was less than 1.3% of the 2009 budget deficit. More money is spent in a week and a half on Medicare and Medicaid by the federal government than on NASA in a year. Giving NASA the few billions needed to complete Constellation would not make a dent in the deficit, it turns out.

So what has NASA and its army of dedicated employees returned on this small investment of the American taxpayers over the years besides Velcro and Tang? The list is very long, but a few items stand out: The microprocessor, personal computers, weather satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope, called by many the single most important scientific instrument in history, exploration of every planet in the solar system, an International Space Station, safer and more efficient airliners, new manufacturing materials, advanced military and commercial aircraft, hundreds of thousands of jobs directly and indirectly supporting its programs, world technological leadership, and a priceless sense of pride and wonder for America.

It has come to this: Constellation is likely the only possible program capable of delivering a human-rated American launcher to reach our space station before it is deactivated in 2020. The decision to cancel Constellation is a catastrophe for the American human space program. It is up to Congress now. Reform NASA’s management culture, put Constellation on the fast track, and apply some rudimentary logic to the NASA budget process. The return on investment can be extraordinary, and America can continue our giant leap for mankind by establishing a permanent lunar base in the next decade as a rational beginning in the journey to Mars and beyond.

Robert Rivers is president of Citizens for Public Ethics, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation whose mission is to raise the level of ethics in our society. He is a former career NASA test pilot, airline pilot, and Naval aviator and the only pilot to have flown and evaluated both the Concorde and Russian Tu-144 Supersonic Transports. He was NASA’s first Aviation Professional of the Year in 2001.