On April 15, after two months of speculation, President Obama gave a
speech at the Kennedy Space Center outlining his new ambitious plans
for NASA and the American space program.

It’s a bold plan with a number of positives, not only nationally, but
in particular for the state of California. Its emphasis on unmanned
missions and private rocketry contractors can only help the state,
which is home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research
Center, plus contractors such as Space X and Scaled Composites.

However, the long-term risks for California under this plan threaten to
undermine any true benefits the state might see. There are two
significant factors that raise concern: the shifting of risk from the
public to the private sector, and the continued failure of the
government to establish clear, achievable goals for the manned space
program. One of these two factors will invariably cause a future crisis
for our space program, but the other may have more profound impacts on
our overall competitiveness, both in aerospace and in other scientific

Critics have zeroed in on President Obama’s plan to have private
contractors assume almost the entire responsibility for building and
developing rockets and launching vehicles. The fact is that private
contractors lack NASA’s sheer scale in rocket technology. The scope of
the Apollo rocket program and the total amount of investment involved
makes it unfeasible for private contractors.

However, even more daunting for private contractors than the scale of
developing, testing and building a launch vehicle capable of reaching
Mars is the fact that any company building such a vehicle becomes
wholly responsible for any catastrophes that might happen because of
the vehicle’s defects. Previously, spacecraft built by private
contractors were always made to NASA’s specifications, and NASA took
responsibility for both flaws in the vehicle design and in the
vehicle’s operation, while the contractor only assumed responsibility
for manufacturing failures. If President Obama’s new plan is
implemented, private contractors will develop vehicles based on their
own design, then bid for NASA funding to build and operate them. NASA’s
overall responsibility will be significantly reduced.   

What does this mean, exactly? In the case of another Apollo 1 or Challenger-type
accident, it could be a disaster, not only for the individuals
involved, but also for the private contractor and the whole space
program. When Challenger exploded in January 1986, it took over
two years for NASA to return to space; a delay like that would cripple
or bankrupt a private company. For many of the California-based
companies, such delays could prove impossible to overcome.

Another crucial point is that the space program is being adjusted to
re-emphasize science at the applied stage, including extending the life
of the International Space Station and promoting further robotic
missions. But these changes aren’t the right stuff to ignite the
public’s imagination or to fire the determination of budding young
scientists. At a time where American companies consistently complain of
a shortage of locally produced engineers and scientists, we are
effectively muting one of the most powerful recruitment tools in the
nation’s history.  

Robotic missions to Mars have been a clear success and have received
widespread publicity in schools. But they represent an evolutionary
step, a not revolutionary step. Setting a vague target date for
orbiting Mars-let alone landing there-doesn’t create the excitement
needed to offset the other moves, which are engaging private companies
to essentially repeat previous advances on their own, while focusing on
preserving the status quo at NASA.  

The Obama administration should be applauded for raising NASA’s funding
levels and renewing our national emphasis on effective scientific
achievements. However, an addition of $6 billion over five years
amounts to perhaps $1.2 billion on a current NASA budget of just under
$19 billion. As it stands now, NASA receives just over 0.5 percent of
the federal budget. As recently as 1993, NASA’s budget was 1 percent of
federal spending. This pales in comparison to the 5.5 percent of the
budget achieved in 1966, but given the current fiscal climate and lack
of effective competition in the space race, even 1 percent of the
budget may be difficult to justify.

It may take China and India showing real progress in reaching the moon
before we find our motivation again. But the broader populations in
those countries clearly take the goal of significant scientific and
engineering advances seriously. We need a more clearly thought out and
viable manned flight program in our country to do the same.