Chair Force Engineer

Monday, August 18, 2008

Tempest in a Teapot

All the space blogs seem to be possessed with discussion over the space policy positions being taken by the two major presidential candidates. When thinking about it, I have to say I'm more amused than anything else. At the end of the day, both candidates will have very general, and very similar, positions on space exploration. The devil is in the details, and the future of America's space efforts will boil down to the person selected by the next president to be NASA's next administrator.

The presidential candidates are both bound by two hard truths. One, America will never cede its ability to put humans into orbit. Two, neither political party wants to take the blame for massive layoffs in central Florida and elsewhere when the shuttle program winds down. Thus, it's pretty likely that Ares I or another NASA-operated crew launcher will win the support of the next president.

With that being said, the campaign promise to close the gap by accelerating Orion with more money should not be taken too seriously. Using Apollo as a historical example, it takes nearly seven years to move a manned, lunar-capable spacecraft from contract award to first manned flight. Using this metric, even a level of funding similar to Apollo wouldn't get Orion ready until 2013. Now that we're two years past Orion contract award, the opportunities to accelerate that program in any meaningful way are dwindling.

The real space policy questions should be saved for whomever is appointed to run NASA after Michael Griffin resigns. I'm looking forward to a tough Senate confirmation hearing with real questions instead of softballs. Will you adhere to the current Project Constellation schedule? What will you do to support COTS? How will you keep Constellation on budget? What is your vision for the agency after the moon? How will you retire the shuttle while still ensuring the safety of the crew and the retention of the workforce?

The next presidential term will see the retirement of the shuttle, the inevitable (and intolerable) spaceflight gap, and the continuing development of Project Constellation. While neither Ares nor Orion will make a manned flight during those four years, the decisions made in that span of time will have a profound impact on America's manned spaceflight capabilities and lunar ambitions. Neither candidate wants to see the effort end in disaster, but NASA needs an iron administrator who can see it through.