Recently, during the week of the Presidential Inauguration in Washington, D.C. , several articles were published discussing the eight years of the Obama Administration. One article that struck my eye, was one from space.com that spoke to the “legacy” of the Obama Administration.
While the author rightly calls this article “premature” and states correctly that Obama doesn’t deserve all the credit…he still poses that it will be remembered as part of his legacy as President of the United States. The main three items he references in the byline (“Mars, private spaceflight and more”), are not really part of his legacy. A legacy is something that someone has actively done. A series of strategic decisions that made things better or worse. Let me provide some reality checks to this article:
Its true that Obama cancelled Project Constellation, and its true that he put in his space policy in 2010 that Mars should be a goal in the 2030s, with the asteroid mission being between. However, it is not true that he initially wanted to do ANY of this. As I have written before, when the first Obama derived NASA budget came out announcing the cancellation of Constellation (ALL programs), the goal of NASA was to become an R&D agency like DARPA to develop the technologies for future exploration. The ISS would remain, and commercial vehicles would be developed to do this. Now for the background…the Orion and SLS were not saved by the Obama Administration as a means to getting to Mars or an Asteroid. In the two months following the announcement of the NASA budget on a teleconference with Charlie Bolden, all hell broke loose in Congress and in other space related forums. Going nowhere and doing nothing was the sense of many, even some Democrats who were then in control of the Congress. The response led to Obama speaking in April at Kennedy Space Center. At that speech, the tone and plan had changed somewhat. Instead of ISS only for spaceflight in the foreseeable future, an asteroid was added and a flight around Mars way in the future (2030s) was mentioned in his speech (and later added to the National Space Policy). However, he said that Orion would be saved but only as a rescue vehicle for space station, not for space exploration. The Senate, not liking this plan, saved Orion and the Space Launch System which closely mirrored the former Ares V design to have some architecture from all the investment (and as backup incase commercial crew program didn’t work out).
Now for the commercial crew part. It is true that NASA created a full program office for commercial crew under the Obama NASA, however, the concept for commercial crew and cargo for space station and beyond was during the Bush Administration (called COTS-D). Interviews of Mike Griffin, the final NASA Administrator for the Bush Administration on the Space Show highlight the difference between the Bush Administration vision for commercial space and what happened. When a government agency creates a program office and buys a vehicle from them with government funds, that is not truly a commercial venture. They are buying vehicles, not just services. So while its not a new idea, the method changed a bit and it became the focus. Commercial space is awesome, but we have not truly arrived and full commercial space transport yet. Hopefully that is coming soon-a day when commercial space transport can occur without government missions and funding.
Members of Congress and the Senate wanted a destination to shoot for and Mars was popular outside of the Administration but not so much within. The Asteroid idea was floated as a means to somewhere to placate some concerned with destinations, while others who liked the NASA R&D approach thinking it was another waste of money.
It should also be noted that the international partners of NASA were not all that happy with the shift as they were looking forward to, and even more so now, going to the moon with the United States. Now…it seemed like there wasn’t much besides Space Station to do.
In addition, Obama Administration’s legacy in space extends to defense as well as civil and commercial. There were several space efforts that were cancelled during the Obama Administration. Some include space based radar, TSAT, and Space Based Test Bed. For a while there, there was a sense in the Pentagon that nobody wanted to propose anything new as everything was seemingly being cancelled. Some programs survived, others rightly disappeared, and others disappeared because they weren’t supported by the Administration for one reason or another. Such is life during a transfer of Presidents and Congresses. But many thought these cancellations across all sectors was huge.
It seemed members of the media (not the conservative media alone) thought this wasn’t a great thing.
So when looking at Obama’s space legacy, remember all the programs cancelled, all the jobs lost, and all the places we didn’t get to go to due to the fact NASA had to stop, cancel a 9B dollar program and start over again. Lets hope that the Trump Administration has a vision for space that can be achieved in our lifetimes and aid in the development of space.