In all, nine of 11 named sources in the Fox piece titled “Lost in Space” are hostile to Obama’s proposal. The two supporting voices are a NASA spokesman, John Yembrick, and a retired physics professor, who rebut the claim that NASA is endangering its astronauts by relying on Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station. In case of emergency, Yembrick notes, a Soyuz capsule is docked to the station with enough seats for a return to Earth. Responding to the insinuation that the Russians might intentionally strand astronauts in space, Howard C. Hayden, an emeritus professor at the University of Connecticut, says, “I can’t imagine that the Russians would avoid a rescue mission simply because relations had soured. That would bring very loud international condemnation. They’d go out of their way to establish their moral high ground.”
Fox’s Koprowski deserves credit for giving cooler heads a voice in a piece that sounds almost hysterical in places, but the gesture quickly gave way to more tendentious hand-wringing. Input from politicians is limited to three senators and one representative from states – Florida, Alabama and Texas – that will be maximally impacted by the cancellation of Constellation. (By the way, the two Florida pols referenced, Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Susanne Kosmas, went on to accompany Obama on Air Force One for his speech at Kennedy Space Center, where they offered conditional praise for the plan.) The piece also quotes science writer Michael Carroll despairing over the dependence on Russia. Last year, he published a book based on NASA’s big plans for a lunar base. Titled “Seventh Landing: Going Back to the Moon, This Time to Stay,” it may fall out of print soon if Obama’s plan to bypass the moon for deep space is realized.
The final word, however, goes to Lord Christopher Monckton, Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley and a former science adviser to Margaret Thatcher, a man listed by Mother Jones as one of the 12 loudest climate change deniers. Monckton reinforces the main thrust of the story, that the new NASA strategy, especially its dependence on Russian transport, will put astronauts in imminent danger and perhaps even be an existential threat to the United States. “The administration’s policy in space was calculated to do maximal damage to the defense interests of the U.S, and without even yielding a financial savings,” Monckton declares.
The thing is, the much bemoaned shut-down of the space shuttle program and the resulting reliance on the Russians, attributed in this story as “[t]he Obama administration’s decision,” was in fact decided in 2004 by then-President George W. Bush. Bush initiated a review of space policy in 2003 following the catastrophic failure of the heat shield on the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Both the Bush and Obama plans would result in a gap between the retiring space shuttle and its replacement, during which the U.S. would invest money saved on the shuttle in research and development, relying on foreign partners, namely Russia, to get to space in the meantime. No one is particularly happy with this arrangement, not NASA, much less certain politicians who still confuse Russia for the Soviet Union, but it’s the result of a lack of foresight that long predates the current president.
In resolving this problem, Obama’s plan differs from Bush’s in counting on the private sector rather than NASA to come up with a shuttle replacement. That’s a real and debatable difference in strategy, but with most everyone agreed that the shuttle’s life can’t be extended without a huge infusion of cash, and even then at considerable risk to the astronauts who would ride it, the discussion should focus not on old fears of the Russian Bear but on how NASA can best push further into the final frontier.
Later this week, we will take a look at the more responsible coverage that grapples with the promise and the risks of Obama’s new NASA policy.