A White House Panel has now turned in its recommendations for the future of NASA. ^p^p Obama now gets to look at these options and choose the course of the space agency at least through his tenure as President.
Obama has already cut the NASA budget significantly. During the Presidential campaign he spoke of cutting NASA's budget in order to pay for his education reforms. I expect that Obama is no friend of NASA and that these budget cuts will stick. Obama will use this in the next campaign as proof of frugality in light of soaring budget deficits.
As somebody who thinks that the fate of the human race itself depends on getting off this rock, I think that this is a costly mistake. We need to spread our genes over a wider area so that the massive destruction of one area (either by our own hands or the hands of an indifferent universe) does not drive us to extinction. The longer we wait, and the less effort we put into it, the greater the odds are that the human race will not survive.
Now, I am not talking about certain death if the Obama administration further postpones space development. There is a good chance that the human race is safe from any threats that space development can guard against. It is just that, given the value of preserving the human race, a little more insurance has its value.
However, Obama, it seems, is not interested in paying that particular insurance premium. And he is, in fact, taking a risk, however small, with human survival itself.
Of course, I am getting ahead of the game here. Obama might surprise us and launch a whole new Kennedy-esque space project. At which point the Republicans will roast him over an open fire for spending money, win the election, and then gut NASA themselves.
I am going to play NASA advisor for a moment and tell Obama what he should do in the confines of political reality.
(1) Cut all plans to return to the moon or to Mars or any type of human space flight outside of low earth orbit. It's not going to happen.
(2) Continue to fund the International Space Station until the year 2020 at least.
(3) Eliminate the Space Shuttle, on schedule, by 2010 or shortly thereafter. Also cancel the Orion project (the project for building the heavy-lift, deep-space projects that would have taken humans back to the moon). These should save a few billion dollars.
(4) Announce that missions to send crew and supplies to the ISS will be bought from private launch companies. In other words, the government will start to outsource ISS service facilities. This will promote a private space industry and can be marketed as a plan of promoting businesses that will keep America competitive in the future. Also, it can be used as an example during the next campaign to show that Obama is not totally averse to outsourcing.
(5) Announce that the panel will next examine ways to preserve the ISS after the year 2020. Being a frugal President, it is far better to find a way to continue to use the materials we have already launched into space than it is to go to the expense of starting over and launching new stuff to replace it.
(6) Announce an initiative to try to help maintain and supply the Space Station by using supplies already in space - either on the moon or from asteroids. Announce an intention to offer prizes to companies that can develop this technology and the intention to give government contracts to the winners of these competitions.
(7) Announce an initiative to study the feasibility of space-based solar power to help deal with the energy problem - effectively making the United States a global supplier of inexpensive, renewable, non-polluting energy, if a way can be discovered to do so. This will make the space program relevant to more than just those who are interested in space development. It will also make the program relevant to those interested in world peace and inexpensive environmentally friendly energy.
(8) Link (7) and (6) by announcing that the study to develop space-based solar power will include an emphasis of using resources from space to do so, and that the contests in (6) will be focused on studying the types of technologies that would make this possible.
Ultimately, these projects would aim for the construction of a space station in geosynchronous orbit, forever above the United States (or, rather, a point above the equator that is closest to the United States). This is where solar power satellites would be built, and where it would be possible to maintain or replace communication and weather satellites. It is an economically and strategically important piece of real-estate, and one that makes sense to occupy.
So, now, we have a socially and politically viable space program that is relevant to more than space geeks (like myself).
It shows fiscal responsibility in that it is not a huge multi-billion dollar project that will likely have nothing to show for it.
It promotes national security not only by helping the United States to secure a foothold in space but by helping the United States to secure a source of energy that decreases our vulnerability to other countries.
It shows respect for the environment by developing a source of clean, green, renewable energy.
It promotes the future economic well-being of the United States by setting the country up to be a major exporter of green electricity as well as the technology involved in making and transporting that technology as well as the development of space.
It shows a willingness to use private enterprise rather than government programs to solve problems by outsourcing the launch costs to private companies instead of having NASA build its own rocket.
It promises a larger space program we have now, even though the government will spend less money on space, because it opens the door for even more private contributions to be made to the development of space than what we see now.
It will deliver more and more relevant science focusing on such things as the makeup and structure of potential source of materials such as asteroids and the moon, the effects of the space environment on humans, and the various scientific realities relevant to engineering in space. I also suspect that a space-faring community will have the ability to build and maintain better and larger space-based telescopes.
It will promote engineering because every part of the project suggests engineering problems as severe as any that the Apollo Program met that would need to be solved.
Mostly, it will help to secure the future of the human race. Because, ultimately, we cannot all live on this one rock in space and expect our species to survive.
Of course no plan will make everybody happy. The lunar colony supporters and Mars Direct advocates will not get what they want.