The Obama Second Term and Space Policy

The re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama for a second four-year term in a bitterly polarized political climate and era of crisis-level budget deficits can fairly be seen to promise a continuation of the status quo in U.S. Government space policy. That policy was led by the Obama Administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget and the issuance of the Augustine Commission Report on the future of human space flight. However, political currents, the rise of China as a space power and the quest for a legacy may push the Administration to try to do more with space policy.

The Augustine Commission, among its recommendations, called for devolving responsibility for ferrying human crews and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) to commercial companies sponsored and partially incubated by NASA; for the ISS lifespan to be modestly increased; and for NASA to focus on more ambitious trans-low earth orbit robotic missions, like probes to asteroids and comets. The rapid success of SpaceX, in particular-which has in short time tested and launched its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and sent its Dragon payload on a cargo resupply mission to ISS and a successful recovery on earth-has borne out the Augustine Commission recommendation, although concerns about dependence on commercial entities for access to space remain. In addition to SpaceX, three U.S. commercial companies: Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, have received Space Act funding to develop alternatives under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev 2) program and are in various stages of testing and demonstration.

The fiscal 2011 budget also called for cancelling the NASA-directed, Lockheed Martin-led Constellation program, intended both for ISS service and a manned return to the moon. Here, political forces came into play, and Constellation was re-animated to a limited-but uncertain-extent by Congress in NASA’s 2010 Authorization Act. The Act directed NASA to use what could be salvaged of the program to develop the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle as, at least, an ISS “lifeboat” and a trans-Low Earth Orbit heavy lift launch vehicle capability is now scheduled for flight test in 2014 and to come on line in 2017. The re-emergence of Constellation was spurred by intense Congressional pressure amid lobbying focused on: the strategic dangers of total reliance on Russian launch vehicles due to the shuttering of the U.S. aerospace industry, the short history and unproven viability of private commercial systems and dismay within the U.S. political class at the United States finding itself, for the first time since it entered the space race (with limited exceptions after fatal accidents), without the capability to send humans into space, dependent on other nations to ferry American astronauts. The aerospace and defense industries, which are major employers and political forces in a time of high unemployment, plus concerns about whether the U.S. space capability would be irretrievably lost if shuttered, will militate to keep U.S. industrial space capability alive. The fact that much of the aerospace manufacturing and launch capability reside in politically sensitive regions only increases the sector’s susceptibility to political currents.

The rise of China as a space power, with China’s successful manned launches and apparent plans to develop its own space station and perhaps go to the moon, is also going to increase the political forces to preserve U.S. public-sector space capability. The original moon shots and space race were very much Cold War-spurred events. The Obama Administration has loudly proclaimed its “pivot to Asia” in foreign policy. Part of that policy will be to engage with China in space capability. Needless to say, the potential loss of status as the primary spacefaring country to China will strongly tend to loosen congressional purse strings, even in a time of deficit.

Finally, President Obama, like all second term Presidents, will be, throughout the next four years, a man in search of a legacy. While the sought-for legacy will principally be in economic recovery and domestic programs, the space sector may see a resulting renewal of interest by the Administration. Human space access capability has always been a source of national pride, albeit one often taken for granted while it existed, and now newly appreciated again. When times are tough, sometimes symbols of national pride can take on outsized significance.

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