President George W. Bush ... After the shuttle Columbia’s disaster in 2003, he introduced a “new vision” to revive the floundering space program. It included post-shuttle propulsion systems and crew-carrying vehicles. The goal was a return of astronauts to the Moon by 2020. Sometime after, to Mars.
But the costs of fighting wars while cutting taxes left little money to support the undertaking. Although several billion dollars have already been invested in advanced hardware, the goals seem illusory, and public support seems thin.
Once again, experience brought reminders, so often overlooked, that Apollo was not a realistic model for future endeavors in space exploration. Going to the Moon had been, above all, a campaign in the cold war. The Soviet Union was the feared adversary, even more so after the Sputnik surprise and after Yuri Gagarin’s flight made him the first man in space, in spring 1961.
Early on, the political scientist John M. Logsdon at George Washington University made a study of the decision-making process leading to Apollo. Dr. Logsdon concluded that Apollo was “a product of a specific time in history” and a singular crash program responding to a perceived threat to the country. It did not represent a firm commitment by society to open-ended space exploration.
Norman R. Augustine, an aerospace industry executive, acknowledged as much when he led a task force that contributed to the first President Bush’s proposals. “The heavy driver for the space program used to be competition with the Soviets,” Mr. Augustine said at the time. “Today, there is not that clear competition but the fundamental values of exploration that drive us. They are less tangible, but no less important.”
If one thing is clear and encouraging in President Obama’s proposals, it is the recognition of Apollo’s exceptionality. Mr. Augustine also served on the committee that advised Mr. Obama, and his point about the changing political matrix has apparently sunk in.
“We’ve been trying to relive Apollo for 40 years, unsuccessfully,” NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori B. Garver, said in an interview with editors and reporters of The New York Times. “For too long NASA overpromised and underdelivered, and now we will be doing things differently.”
That remains to be seen. Congressional committees have not begun to examine the proposals and the modest budget increases for NASA. The administration’s plan may be “bold and game-changing,” in Ms. Garver’s words, but several aspects are likely to stir controversy or at least call for closer study.
In contrast to the past, the new plan sets no definite timetables, cost estimates or destinations. Nor is there extravagant rhetoric about knowledge and adventure. The Kennedy eloquence about sailing “this new ocean” was effective primarily because the nation felt the need to demonstrate its technological superiority in war and peace.
Not having specified goals and targets runs the risk of having a program wander off course. As a first step, the administration proposed scuttling the present plan to return to the Moon by 2020. Development of the rocket and crew capsule for those flights would be stopped, though some of the research might be used in succeeding vehicles.
NASA officials say that, depending on financing and progress developing new technologies, projections for the timing of the next astronaut ventures might be made in five or six years. The first objective along this “flexible path” is just to regain the ability to fly beyond low orbit, forsaken years ago with the decommissioning of the Saturn 5 Moon rocket. Eventually, when the means are available and the national spirit willing, the Moon, asteroids and Mars will be the likeliest destinations.
Some elements of the new plan may be popular. A pledge to enlist other nations as partners should spread costs. Such a practice with the International Space Station has been encouraging.
The proposal to outsource development and ownership of the new flight hardware to private enterprise should win support among conservatives. It also raises questions. Will NASA be able to maintain control over the quality and safety of the new vehicles that, in effect, it will rent for astronaut missions? Will the government be transferring to private hands undue influence over the pursuit of national goals in space?