The various announcements of President Barack Obama on the conquest of space are disconcerting. One objective remains: a major launch for the U.S. in the next ten years to replace the last shuttle flight planned for this fall. One thing is certain ─ America can no longer afford to pay on its own for a space exploration program.
In February, President Barack Obama put an end to plans to go back to the Moon with the Constellation Program. The reasons for this abandonment are many: cost, inadequate financing, lack of innovation but especially the economic crisis. And unlike Apollo, Constellation did not enjoy broad support from the public. As if to console NASA for the loss of Constellation, or to reassure elected officials from Florida and Texas, Obama has pledged to increase its budget by $6 billion over the next five years! Is this a statement meant to shock, as has often been done in the past by his predecessors, or a real desire to move forward? Only time will tell.
If a return to the moon is no longer under consideration, the overall objective for further human exploration of the solar system remains and would be accomplished in stages: by 2025, vessels would be sent around the Moon and land on an asteroid, and by the mid-2030s, men would be sent around Mars and then on the red planet itself. This does not exclude a return to the moon, but Obama points out that “Buzz (Aldrin) has already been there.” While in 2004 NASA had come up with 200 good reasons to return to the moon, six years later the Moon has become devoid of interest. A manned U.S. spaceflight finds it difficult to set a long-term and steady course.
For the next fifteen years, the new president’s new vision of space essentially boils down to a return to the drawing board and maintaining the International Space Station while encouraging the private sector to invest in manned flights. Putting the emphasis on research and the development of technology, particularly for future heavy launchers, is nothing new. This is the umpteenth time in the last twenty-five years that we have witnessed the establishment of such a strategy, which has never produced convincing results. This also creates a debate regarding the president’s desire to see private companies in partnership with NASA in manned spaceflight. Again, this is not new. In 2006, the Bush administration launched the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) with the private sector serving the ISS. In fact, this was primarily meant to relieve NASA’s finances so more funds would be available for Constellation. However there is a prevailing skepticism in the United States on the ability of the private sector to replace, at least in part, NASA in the field of manned spaceflight.
However, one goal remains. While the shuttle will be withdrawn from service, Americans will be able to go into space solely through the Russian Soyuz. Therefore, the goal is to minimize this dependence by developing a new spacecraft that will probably not see the light of day for ten years. Russians already raised their prices. Until May 2009, the cost per astronaut was $26 million. Since April 2010, the price of a seat on Soyuz has climbed to $51 million, and in 2013 and 2014, the cost of flights will be $56 million. However, as the result of a compromise, Obama conceded to NASA a simplified version of the Orion Constellation Program which could be used as a lifeline for the ISS.
It is not clear that private investment can take over NASA in the near-term. Today, no one ─ even companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and EADS ─ can afford the development of a space ship, or a launch vehicle at the tune of 10 to 15 billion euros, much less the development of space infrastructure, on the Moon or Mars. At any rate, one thing is certain: the shortage of funds should increase international cooperation. Perhaps this is the best wish one can make when if comes to the conquest of space. Obama’s decision clearly shows that even the U.S. can no longer afford to solely finance a program of human space exploration. U.S. space conquest is at a turning point in its history. It will take a decade of reflection to provide the means to go further. Let’s hope, in any case, that President Obama’s new goal will be shared and respected.