To Inspire and Explain

With NASA’s future uncertain, press must weigh science versus exploration

[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,’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.

Appropriately, most every story covering the speech put Obama’s ambitions for human deep-space exploration high up – a mission to a near-earth asteroid in 2025, a roundtrip flight to Mars in the mid-2030s and a landing on the red planet at some point in his lifetime. “I expect to be around to see it,” Obama said.

Digging into the proposed asteroid-shot, the AP’s Borenstein wrote an interesting next-day piece exploring the logistics of such a mission and what we could hope to learn. An average candidate asteroid would be about five million miles from Earth – twenty times as far as the moon – and would require about a six-month trip, far longer than the Apollo 11’s eight-day voyage. It would require advanced propulsion and life-support systems and provide crucial training for the more distant trip to Mars, Borenstein reported. The mission would be more than a nod to fans of the film “Armageddon,” in which Bruce Willis and Robert Duvall play the ultimate space cowboys, on a mission to save the earth from an earthbound cataclysm. But it’s that, too. After all, asteroids are a potential threat. “Landing on an asteroid and giving it a well-timed nudge ‘would demonstrate once and for all that we’re smarter than the dinosaurs and can avoid what they didn’t,’” White House science adviser John Holdren told Borenstein. But beyond their apocalyptic potential, asteroids contain substances that astronauts would need to make fuel and equipment, as they would for a landing on Mars.

One aspect of Obama’s proposal that has not been discussed as much, perhaps because it received only a brief and indirect mention in his speech, is that he plans to increase the funding for NASA’s Earth Sciences Division by $2.4 billion over five years. That would account for 40 percent of the total $6 billion increase the president proposed for NASA’s budget overall. Two weeks before Obama’s speech, The Washington Post reported on the plans for this money, an angle also picked up by Fast Company, NPR, and the The Christian Science Monitor as well.

The Earth-science funding represents a “philosophical shift,” allowing for continuous monitoring of climate data, money for planned but currently unfunded missions, and service of the agency’s thirteen satellites currently dedicated to the study of climate, Marc Kauffman reported in the Post.“This administration has a clear priority for science in general and Earth science in specific,” Edward Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told NPR, which reported that the new money that would replace twin satellites that have been making detailed studies of the Earth’s gravity field since 2002. The mission, dubbed GRACE, may sound like science for science’s sake, but its eyes are trained on practical issues here on terra firma. The satellites’ measurements show that the groundwater of California’s San Joaquin Valley is disappearing faster than it’s being replenished, for instance, Weiler says. Other projects include launching a new Orbiting Carbon Observatory (the original crashed into the ocean last year after it was launched), NPR noted. Its piece closes claiming a wholesale reorientation of NASA’s mission: “The proposed NASA budget still needs approval from Congress. But NASA officials say lawmakers seem to like the space agency’s new focus on the Earth.”

This may or may not be true. The question of which space-based tasks in NASA’s near-term future are most relevant and important to the public hasn’t been explored much by the media following Obama’s big speech. Perhaps more attention should be paid to the less sexy, but for the foreseeable future, more tangible, aspects of NASA’s work. With human spaceflight confined to relatively routine trips to the space station on Russian rockets for the next several years, and no major destination mission before 2025, journalists are going to have to start doing the hard work of explaining NASA’s more terrestrially-focused science.

Emily Badger, writing in Miller-McCune, noted that Obama’s speech was neither as specific nor inspiring as Kennedy’s in 1962, when he famously declared, “We choose to go to the moon this decade …” Obama’s task, as Badger said, was to recast “what looks to many like the end of American manned space flight — at least for the indefinite future — as a beginning to something bigger.” Obama did that. He plotted a long-term strategy that will tickle the imagination of our deep-space frontier fantasies, but fantasies they will remain for a long time to come. Hopefully, the press will find a way to engage to the public with NASA in the meantime.

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Brett Norman is a reporter for Politico.