[Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series examining recent coverage of President Obama’s plans for the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The first part is here.]
In 1961, John F. Kennedy set a goal to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade, upping the ante in a Space Race that began four years earlier with the galling sight of Sputnik circling overhead. Americans rallied to the call and Congress funded it, eager to one-up the Soviets’ humiliating success in launching the first satellite into orbit. In perhaps the most celebrated demonstration of American pluck and scientific ingenuity in history, the Eagle landed on the Sea of Tranquility in 1969; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first two humans to set foot on the moon, and they planted a flag on it.
NASA nailed the prototypical moon shot less than eight years after Kennedy spelled out the mission, and landed five more times on the lunar surface before retiring the Apollo program in 1972. Now, over forty years later, nostalgia for the glory days runs high. Despite the expectation-busting success of the Mars Rovers missions, the Hubble Telescope’s extension of the cosmic horizon or the space shuttle program’s 29-year career traveling to low Earth orbit, no endeavor has come close to creating the same public enthusiasm – or Congressional commitment – as the Apollo missions did. And none will any time soon. So how should the press cover NASA in the meantime?
When Obama came to Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week to defend his new vision for NASA, the future of human space flight was in question, in the near-term, at least. The shuttle is slated to retire this fall and an independent panel had concluded (PDF) that NASA’s current plan, called the Constellation program, would not have a replacement ship ready before 2017, MSNBC.com’s Alan Boyle reported. Put in place by President George W. Bush to succeed the shuttle program after the Columbia disaster in 2003, Constellation was to build a rocket that would service the International Space Station and other low orbit missions and another that would take astronauts to the moon beyond, where they would establish a lunar base in preparation for a voyage to Mars. But the review found that Constellation, having already spent upwards of $10 billion, was well over budget, underfunded, and so far behind schedule that it would not be able to mount another moon shot until 2028 at the earliest, nearly four decades after the first landing.
Obama first announced in February that he planned to scuttle Constellation without offering a timeline for concrete alternatives, and many critics cried that he was resigning the country’s crewed space exploration program to history. The proposal “begins the death march for the future of US human space flight,” said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby in the Times of London. Less melodramatic expressions of the same concern were echoed in many space circles. Obama had done his part to inflame the fears. As Reuters’s Jim Young recently reported, during the presidential campaign candidate Obama had targeted NASA for budget cuts, even though he later changed course, promising a prosperous but redirected future for the agency.
And just before Obama’s speech, Neil Armstrong emerged “briefly from his habitual reclusion to complain that the U.S. space program, long the world leader, was at risk of being reduced to a ‘second or even third rate stature,’” although Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, backed the president’s plan, the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein reported.
Well aware of the doubts, Obama tried to allay the widespread worry that he was not devoted to human spaceflight, that he may harbor secret sympathies with the we’ve-got-too-many-problems-on-earth-to-be-wasting-money-on-space camp. He came out with a definitive bite that was quoted in most of the first-day coverage: “The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space, than I am.” A less reported line, though one that’s also a tell in space circles, emphasized the return on investment for what some see as an extravagant indulgence: “[F]or pennies on the dollar, the space program has fueled jobs and entire industries. For pennies on the dollar, the space program has improved our lives, advanced our society, strengthened our economy, and inspired generations of Americans. And I have no doubt that NASA can continue to fulfill this role,” Obama said. One question the media should ask, but hasn’t yet, is how, exactly, his new plan does this.