U.S. closing door on space program

February 12, 2010


— Washington — “We have an agreement until 2012 that Russia will be responsible for this,” says Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian spaceagency, about ferrying astronauts from other countries into low-Earth orbit. “But after that? Excuse me, but the prices should be absolutely different then!”

The Russians may be new at capitalism but they know how it works. When you have a monopoly, you charge monopoly prices. Within months, Russia will have a monopoly on rides into space.

By the end of this year, there will be no shuttle, no U.S. manned space program, no way for us to get into space. We’re not talking about Mars or the moon here. We’re talking about low-Earth orbit, which the U.S. has dominated for nearly half a century and from which it is now retiring with nary a whimper.

Our absence from low-Earth orbit was meant to last a few years, the interval between the retirement of the fatally fragile space shuttle and its replacement with the Constellation program (Ares booster, Orion capsule, Altair lunar lander) to take astronauts more cheaply and safely back to space.

But the Obama 2011 budget kills Constellation. Instead, we shall have nothing. For the first time since John Glenn flew in 1962, the U.S. will have no access of its own for humans into space — and no prospect of getting there in the foreseeable future.

Of course, the administration presents the abdication as a great leap forward: Launching humans will now be turned over to the private sector, while NASA’s efforts will be directed toward landing on Mars.

This is nonsense. It would be swell for private companies to take over launching astronauts. But they cannot do it. It’s too expensive. It’s too experimental. And the safety standards for actually getting people up and down reliably are just unreachably high.

Sure, decades from now there will be a robust private space-travel industry. But that is a long time. In the interim, space will be owned by Russia and then China. The president waxes seriously nationalist at the thought of China or India surpassing us in speculative “clean energy.” Yet he is quite prepared to gratuitously give up our spectacular lead in human space exploration.

As for Mars, more nonsense. Mars is just too far away. And how do you get there without the stepping stones of Ares and Orion? If we can’t afford an Ares rocket to get us into orbit and to the moon, how long will it take to develop a revolutionary new propulsion system that will take us not a quarter-million miles but 35 million miles?

To say nothing of the effects of long-term weightlessness, of long-term cosmic ray exposure, and of the intolerable risk to astronaut safety involved in any Mars trip — six months of contingencies versus three days for a moon trip.

Of course, the whole Mars project as substitute for the moon is simply a ruse. It’s like the classic bait-and-switch for high-tech military spending: Kill the doable in the name of some distant sophisticated alternative, which either never gets developed or is simply killed later in the name of yet another, even more sophisticated alternative of the further future. A classic example is the B-1 bomber, which was canceled in the 1970s in favor of the over-the-horizon B-2 stealth bomber, which was then killed in the 1990s after a production run of only 21 (instead of 132) in the name of post-Cold War obsolescence.

Moreover, there is the question of seriousness. When John F. Kennedy pledged to go to the moon, he meant it. He had an intense personal commitment to the enterprise. He delivered speeches remembered to this day. He dedicated astronomical sums to make it happen.

At the peak of the Apollo program, NASA was consuming almost 4 percent of the federal budget, which in terms of the 2011 budget is about $150 billion. Today the manned space program will die for want of $3 billion a year — 1/300th of last year’s stimulus package with its endless make-work projects that will leave not a trace on the national consciousness.

As for President Obama’s commitment to beyond-lunar space: Has he given a single speech, devoted an iota of political capital to it?

Obama’s NASA budget perfectly captures the difference in spirit between Kennedy’s liberalism and Obama’s. Kennedy’s was an expansive, bold, outward-looking summons. Obama’s is a constricted inward-looking call to retreat.

Fifty years ago, Kennedy opened the New Frontier. Obama has just shut it.

— Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. letters@charleskrauthammer.com


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 4 months ago

"This is nonsense. It would be swell for private companies to take over launching astronauts. But they cannot do it. It’s too expensive. It’s too experimental. And the safety standards for actually getting people up and down reliably are just unreachably high."

What? I thought the private enterprise was always better, Chuck. What causes this crack in your faith? How much additional budget deficit do you recommend to create new launch and space vehicles?

jayhawklawrence 8 years, 4 months ago

We are just lucky that the space program accomplished so much with the government controlling the funding all these years.

Dr. Doom is probably the worst person to give us news about what is going on at NASA. Everything he writes is strictly for political consumption and to twist the facts.

Just what we need.

Ricky_Vaughn 8 years, 4 months ago

This probably isn't the best time to be shooting billions of dollars into space anyway...for the time being I'm more concerned about our terrestrial problems.

What have we really achieved anyway since we landed on the moon? What good did that do us? I guess we got to beat our chests and say "we're number one!" for a while.

K_Verses_The_World 8 years, 4 months ago

Man has invented his doom, First step was touching the moon.

Bob Dylan - License To Kill

tomatogrower 8 years, 4 months ago

barrypenders (Anonymous) says… What else is the Professer Poser going to bastardize about America? Does The Poser realize that this rock is all there is in the Universe? His Muslim/Militant Christian training has initiated in his world, the absolute fact that Earth is it.

Save the babies

Stimulus, Professer Knows Best, and Posercare live unprecedented

Darwin bless us all

Wow, Barry is actually bemoaning the fact that we aren't spending billions of tax money on a government program. Don't believe for a second we'll ever forget this, Barry. Let the people of America go underfed, without healthcare, and uneducated, but make sure we go to the moon again. If it's so important I'm sure you will invest your billions of dollars to create a corporation to go to the moon. Then you can set up your perfect conservative world and send all those unaborted babies to live there, that is if they are perfectly healthy.

georgiahawk 8 years, 4 months ago

Just another article by the republican conservative right showing that their only concern is being the party of NO, even when it goes against supposed values they hold dear!

Mike Hoffmann 8 years, 4 months ago

It would be great if we could continue to pour billions into space exploration, but right now it would be like paying to put in a swimming pool while the roof of your house is collapsing.

puddleglum 8 years, 4 months ago


I started reading this article, then kept waiting for it.....waiting for it.... finally! there's the Obama=bad guy.

took awhile.

Now just imagine the same article had Obama poured billions of dollars into a jupiter exploration program.

hypocrite of the year award: chucky baby.

antavious 8 years, 4 months ago

I do not think that the government should close the door on the space program because we could develop ways to live and do other things such as vacations on our brothering planets

somedude20 8 years, 4 months ago

If Obama was sinking (yes sinking) all of the money that dubya pledged to use to get man (ape?) back to the moon Barry Whinelow and his right wing army of the bedamned would be crying like Larry Craig after finding out that the mens room was closed for cleaning

birther's copacabana, free whine and moon cheese for bigoted kansasians

natural selection will weed you out

Richard Heckler 8 years, 4 months ago

Repub Teabaggers are Deficit Hawk Phonies


Repub Teabagger Welfare Queens

Once again repubs are proving themselves phonies as they gad about spending stimulus dollars.

After all of them voted no and said such a project is simply awful so meet the repub welfare queens who say wow what a great idea.


gphawk89 8 years, 4 months ago

40 years ago we could put men on the moon. 20 years ago we could only achieve LEO. Now we're not going anywhere. Sad...

gatekeeper 8 years, 4 months ago

barrypenders (Anonymous) says…

PAD's want to soak up other peoples money. The Poser has been printing it like he was the 'Blessed One' trying to fulfill their demands for more money. PADs having their demanded money used for science is blasphemous PAD talk. Their money demanding dogma is righteous. In a PAD world, spending other peoples money, is all inclusively, reserved for their immediate wants. It's not for Science that does not supplant their demands for more money. Like Gorebal Warming. Oh, I forgot the new PAD vernacular word for 'Warming'. 'Climate'. Gorebal Climate change. ///////

What are you even talking about? The failure known as Bush Jr. didn't believe in science.

WASHINGTON - Spending cuts President Bush proposed for NASA science projects will cause far more harm than the administration has acknowledged, top scientists warned a congressional panel Thursday. http://www.space.com/news/ft_060303_nasa_science.html

With a budget deficit estimated at $521 billion this year, coupled with a commitment to halve it in five years, U.S. President Bush is proposing a budget that would mean cuts in research and development (R&D) funding for all but three federal agencies, according to the latest analysis from AAAS, the non-profit science society. "The projected cuts to most nondefense R&D programs would leave key programs with budgets well below recent historical levels," http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/node/2653

Just google Bush cuts science spending.

dru442 8 years, 4 months ago

What I worry about is who are we (USA) gonna call when one of our sattelites needs repaired. I am sure China and Russia would love to help us with that.

SnakeFist 8 years, 4 months ago

At some point, NASA was taken over by academics with completely uninspiring and esoteric research interests. As a result, we can't now do half of what we did forty years ago, and Joe Public doesn't care.

But for those of you who think we can just forget about space, consider what will happen if we can't properly service our satellites. Worse, look at it from a defense perspective (that should appeal to the conservatives) - what happens when China begins dropping boulders onto our cities? Talk about holding the high ground!

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