President Barack Obama’s proposal to limit the government’s exclusive control of American spaceflight would cut former President George W. Bush’s Constellation program, which aimed to have U.S. astronauts back on the moon by 2012, out of the 2011 budget.
The 2004 program would have added $55 billion to Obama’s $6.1 billion addition over five years to NASA’s $18.7 billion budget.
Despite seven years of work, the Constellation program is wasteful and impractical to continue in this bad economy.
“This isn’t a step backwards,” Jim Kohlenberger, chief of staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said to BBC News. “I think the step backwards was trying to recreate the Moon landings of 40 years ago using largely yesterday’s technology, instead of game-changing new technology that can take us further, faster and more affordably into space.”
The White House determined NASA’s funding could be better spent on other initiatives, like encouraging commercial firms to develop better spacecraft to replace NASA’s retiring shuttles.
Shortly after Obama announced his decision, NASA awarded $50 million in grants to five private firms for that purpose.
The president’s shift from governmentally-manned spaceflight to the private sector is justified. Private research and development could yield a wider and more fruitful supply of ideas for more efficient space travel. It also could allow the recession-battered government to refocus its priorities on other areas of research like the effect of prolonged space travel on humans.
A private space industry would be analogous to modern airlines. With adequate regulation, private firms could deliver positive results.
In December 2008, NASA awarded the private space exploration company SpaceX a contract worth more than $3 billion to shuttle cargo to the International Space Station. Many other relatively minor contracts already exist between NASA and private firms.
Some critics are concerned about outsourcing. “I don’t think it’s good for the United States to have to depend on the Chinese or the Indians or private contractors to continue our pioneering of space,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn said to the Dallas Morning News.
But the government is in charge of the contracts and prefers American companies to foreign ones. When private spacecraft development is complete, the U.S. will be less dependent on existing foreign space technology.
Other opponents to Obama’s space plan say it would result in massive job losses in Texas, Alabama and Florida – NASA’s major sites of operation.
However, a boom in the private industry would require skilled NASA employees to fill new jobs.
“This represents the entrance of the entrepreneurial mindset into a field that is poised for rapid growth and new jobs,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a press conference.
Space vehicles subsidized with American dollars still represent the country. Therefore, the government should still provide direction and ensure safety standards are met. If Congress approves Obama’s plan, the U.S. will lead the way to privatized spaceflight around the globe.
Neil Manimala is a junior majoring in biomedical science.