Obama NASA plan reveals generational divide about space travel

The Ares I rocket that has been cancelled by the Obama NASA plaln

The Obama NASA plan cancels the Ares I rocket, which has outraged old school astronauts and inspired a younger generation of innovators. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Controversy over the Obama/NASA plan intensified today as the President defended his vision for NASA’s future that has outraged former astronauts, Republican politicians and space industry executives. The Obama NASA speech in Florida attempted to convince his detractors that his recommendations will not compromise the United States’ leadership in space exploration.

Obama NASA plan cancels Bush program

Earlier this week the Obama NASA issue heated up when the administration announced it would cancel George W. Bush’s Constellation space program, a massive effort to launch manned missions to the Moon and Mars. Legendary astronauts made their disagreement with Obama loud and clear, especially Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. They accused Obama of ceding American leadership in space to the Chinese and Russians.

Obama NASA plan relies on private companies

As the space shuttle program winds down for good, the crux of the Obama NASA plan is the cancellation of new rockets to the moon. The Obama administration wants to give money now to  private companies for flying into space over the next few years instead. Meantime, the government will work to develop a spacecraft that will bypass the moon to explore asteroids and other potential stepping stones to Mars.

Obama NASA funding

While astronauts like Armstrong who will be 80 years old this year vehemently oppose the changes, younger generations support Obama NASA funding: $6 billion to encourage private companies to build their own spaceships to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. PayPal founder Elon Musk can expect a big pay day. His company, SpaceX, is gearing up to fly astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2013. Spacex plans to charge NASA about $20 million an astronaut–a bargain compared with more than $300 million a head it was going to cost NASA under the Bush plan, plus the $56 million NASA will pay Russia for trips on Soyuz rockets in the meantime.

The Obama NASA speech

In Obama’s NASA speech, the President explained his rationale to an audience of 200 NASA employees, astronauts, and members of Congress, saying that investment in private companies would spur economic growth. “I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way,” he said. “I disagree.” By buying the services of space transportation — rather than the vehicles themselves — we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies — from young startups to established leaders — compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.”

Losers in the Obama NASA plan

Obama NASA funding cuts off the new Ares I rocket motor that Utah aerospace company ATK has been developing. ATK employs more than 2,000 people and has worked several years on the cancelled Constellation program. ATK has tested motors for one Ares rocket, and has cash now for a second test this fall. In 2005 the Ares I and NASA’s Orion Rocket were scheduled to support the International Space Station in 2012, two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. Today that date has been pushed to 2015.

Winners of Obama NASA funding

To take up the slack, the Obama NASA plan recommends a new heavy-lift rocket that would be completed sooner than Ares and Orion would have been. The Obama NASA plan also increases NASA’s budget by $6 billion over 5 years. In his speech on Thursday, Obama said this will add more than 2,500 jobs in Florida’s Kennedy Space Center area.

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