Those who have had the honor to work in and around the White House understand that in reality, the president has a limited and shrinking power-base. Every day and in almost every way, Congress seeks to weaken that base while transferring more of the executive branch authority to its own body.
Given that reality, a president must pick his moments and lead with the aide of his best assets: conviction and the largest and most commanding bully pulpit in the world. With regard to our human spaceflight program, it can certainly be argued that President Obama has not only missed his moment, but deliberately avoided it because he has no passion for the subject. The question being, will this go down in history as the most damaging mistake of his presidency?
The president is obviously not required to have a passion for our space program. A reality he took no pains to conceal when back in 2007, then candidate Obama said he planned to pay for his $18 billion education plan by taking it out of the hide of NASA.
That said, he is required to do all in his power to keep our nation on the path to a safer and more prosperous future. What President Obama fails to acknowledge in 2010 is precisely what President John F. Kennedy argued for in 1962. That being the critical importance of our space program to that safer and more prosperous future. On Sept. 12, 1962, Kennedy said, “…Our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us…to become the world’s leading spacefaring nation.”
For the past five decades, the United States has held that title. With his decision to cancel NASA’s human spaceflight program and outsource it to private industry, Mr. Obama has now ensured that the People’s Republic of China with its military run program or Russia, will now wrest the title from us and hold it for decades or more.
Michael Griffin, the former administrator of NASA and himself a strong advocate of true “commercial” space, feels the president is misreading private sector capabilities as well as long-term viability. Griffin said to me, “Suborbital flight takes about 2 percent of the energy needed for orbital flight. Understanding that, the reality is that the commercial space industry is a number of years away from fielding economical, capable, reliable, and logistically dependable transportation just for cargo. With human spaceflight being harder yet.”
Griffin’s factual point has not been lost on members of Congress or even the most well-known commercial space pioneer. With regard to Obama’s decision, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology said it was a “radical change” and “has raised as many questions as it has answered.” Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) questioned, “…whether this dooms us to a future where there are no Americans in space, or at least the dominant language in space is not English.” Finally, Burt Rutan, the man who designed the privately built and funded spacecraft which successfully carried humans into suborbital flight has said, “My basic concern is that the real value of NASA’s contributions that America realized in the ’60s and early ’70s is now being completely discarded. How can we rationalize a surrender of our preeminence in human spaceflight?”
President Obama is going to try. Surprised by the push-back he has gotten from Members of his own party as well as experts on space—while recognizing the political risk associated with the elimination of tens of thousands of space jobs—he has called for a conference this week in the all important swing-state of Florida. Why Florida and not Texas which houses the famous Johnson Spaceflight Center? Political scientist Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia said, “The Obama administration could care less about offending Texas politically. Texas is guaranteed to go Republican in 2012 whereas Florida will be highly competitive.” Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida said, “While continuing dialogue about the space program is welcome…we already know the outcome.”
Before that “outcome” becomes an irreversible reality, the president needs to ask himself one question: “What if I’m wrong?” It’s possible. Even the president’s friend and White House advisor Valerie Jarrett has admitted the White House has made a number of mistakes since assuming power. Some naturally exact a much higher price than others.
Neither space nor our future in it should be a partisan issue driven by politics of the moment. China measures its future not in months or years, but in decades and centuries. They not only see the commercial and military value of preeminence in space, but intend to capitalize on its immense promise.
Many scientists believe that the Vikings came to North America long before European explorers and looked upon it as a vast and useless wasteland and went home to perish. With his controversial decision regarding our space program, has President Obama just replicated that Viking mistake?
History will provide the answer.
Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and a long-time consultant on space.