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.