The current mission of the space shuttle Endeavour will complete the last unfinished part of the International Space Station. With only four more shuttle launches remaining before the retirement of the shuttle fleet at yearend, the latest launch heralds the approaching end of an era for American space exploration.
Back on earth, President Obama's proposed budget for the space program envisions a radical redesign of America's space program for a new era. If the President is a socialist, as so many of his adversaries claim, his space proposals certainly don't show it. He wants to stake the future of much of the U.S. manned space program on the success of free private enterprise.
In a recent national poll, 63 percent of Republicans said they think the President of the United States is a socialist. Even a few Democrats may agree. But look closely at what he has recommended in his proposed budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Something entirely different emerges.
From Gemini to Apollo to the space shuttle, NASA has always designed and built its own launch systems. That's what the space agency been doing the past few years in designing new rockets and a new crew capsule for the "Constellation" program that's been supposed to take Americans back to the moon by 2020.
But we're nowhere near returning to the moon. The Constellation program has been plagued by technical problems, delays, and ever-rising costs. NASA has been squeezed tighter and tighter by a budget with many more missions than money to pay for them. And, following the recommendation of a blue-ribbon panel he appointed shortly after taking office, the President has proposed cancelling the entire Constellation effort.
With only a few more missions left, the space shuttle fleet, after long years of historic service, is up for sale. Finally completed, the International Space Station will still circle in low earth orbit, producing needed scientific knowledge. Importantly, the President's proposed budget would extend the expected life of the space station by five years to 2020.
Consistent with the traditional approach, Obama is looking to NASA itself to develop new heavy-lift rockets that would eventually carry new spacecraft beyond Earth orbit on new manned missions of space exploration. Back to the moon? On to Mars? What those new missions would be and when they would happen has yet to be determined.
In the meantime, though, the President is looking not to NASA, but instead to a rapidly growing American commercial space industry, to fill the gap. He wants to invest $6 billion over the next five years to enable private commercial rocket companies to develop much less expensive vehicles to resupply the space station.
Private companies already have contracts with NASA to transport cargo to and from the station. Now Obama wants these American companies to provide space taxis for transporting astronauts as well.
Clearly, the President has considerable faith in the private sector. If the private companies don't come through with a workable way back and forth from space, NASA will have no backup. We Americans will have to rely, once the shuttles stop flying, solely on our Russian partners as our only way to and from low earth orbit to provision the space station.
Congress has long encouraged the development of a commercial space industry. While a Member of Congress, I initiated and co-sponsored some of those legislative efforts. At a time when American leadership in space technology is being increasingly challenged worldwide, we need to continue to help move our private sector forward. The President's proposal would definitely do that.
What are the concerns?
One is safety. No one who watched the Challenger explode in the skies over Central Florida -- as I did -- need be reminded about the risks of space travel or the imperative of safety. Chip Bolden, the new NASA administrator, surely needs no reminder. He is a former astronaut.
Careful consideration must be given to what it will take to qualify commercial rockets for a "human rating." It is one thing to carry cargo. It is quite another to carry people. We need the highest safety standards.
Another concern, of course, is jobs.
The retirement of the shuttle fleet at yearend will jeopardize 7,000 jobs at the Kennedy Space Center and all along the "Space Coast" of Central Florida in my former Congressional district. We must do all we can to save those jobs.
For me, the simple fact that many of those jobs are held by my friends and my former constituents is reason enough to do everything possible to save them. But much more is at stake for our entire country.
Overall U.S. industrial capacity fell by an estimated one percent in 2009 -- the largest yearly decline ever. Goods-producing businesses shed more than 2.3 million jobs last year.
At such a time, do we really want to throw away the critical mass and the critical skills of thousands of space workers in Florida, Texas, California, and elsewhere in this country whose labors have secured and sustained America's comparative advantage in what will surely be one of the key global industries of the twenty-first century?
Space workers have dealt with transition before, from Gemini to Apollo, and then from Apollo to the space shuttle. The President's proposed national investment in commercial space would save some jobs, and he would also create jobs by spending $2 billion to modernize the Kennedy Space Center. My hope is that Congress will do much more to ease this transition by enhancing that investment in ways that will save a lot more.
The President makes spending recommendations. The Congress alone makes spending decisions. No doubt some in Congress will seek to salvage the troubled Constellation program. They are unlikely to succeed. Much more promising of success for the long-term future of NASA, manned space flight, and the overall quest for continued space exploration would be an eager Congressional embrace of the President's bet on the private sector.
Like our President, we Americans are not socialists. We believe in initiative, incentive, and entrepreneurship. We have long sought to help inspire all those essential capitalist virtues in a vibrant commercial space industry for America. Why stop now?
In an America much in the grip of deep division and angry gridlock, why not promote both unity and progress by reaffirming our national commitment to space exploration, and by expressing anew our full confidence in the vast creative potential of free private enterprise?