NASA to Celebrate Shuttle's End Four Days Before Elections, Republicans Step Up Criticism

NASA to Celebrate Shuttle's End Four Days Before Elections, Republicans Step Up Criticism

NASA will celebrate the end of the space shuttle program on November 2 by moving the Atlantis orbiter to its permanent exhibition site.  The event, just four days before the elections, could give Republican candidates an opening to sharpen their recent attacks on the Obama Administration for making the United States dependent on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan and Florida Republican Senatorial candidate Rep. Connie Mack stepped up criticism of President Obama’s space policy this week.  A major focus of their comments was U.S. dependency on Russia for crew access to the ISS.  While they failed to mention that it was President George W. Bush who first decided that a multi-year “gap” in U.S. human space access was acceptable, it is accurate that President Obama chose to retain that part of the Bush space policy and the shuttle program ended on his watch.   How many voters will recall — or care — that it was a Bush policy first remains to be seen.

Florida is a key state in determining who wins the Presidency.  Recent polls show Republican candidate Mitt Romney with a lead over President Obama.  As for the contest between incumbent Senator Bill Nelson (D) and Mack, Nelson appears to have the advantage at the moment.

Under President Bush’s space policy, a new system, Constellation, was to be in place by 2014 using the Ares I rocket and Orion spacecraft.  He wanted the shuttle program ended in 2010, meaning a gap of four years.  Shortly after his inauguration in 2009, however, President Obama ordered a review of the Constellation program by a committee chaired by Norman Augustine.  It concluded that Ares 1/Orion actually would not be ready until 2017 at the earliest, so the gap might have been at least seven years. 

How long the gap actually will be is unknown.  The shuttle program flew its last mission in 2011 rather than 2010.   President Obama initiated the “commercial crew” program to encourage private sector companies to build their own systems to take astronauts to and from the ISS.   NASA anticipates that such a capability will be ready in 2017, though some of the companies say it could be as early as 2015.  That would mean a gap of four-to-six years, but since none of the commercial crew systems has flown yet, it is anyone’s guess as to when the United States once again will be able to launch people into orbit.

It seems odd that NASA would choose to remind everyone so close to the election about the current state of the human spaceflight program.  Regardless of whether one faults Bush or Obama — or both — NASA must rely on Russia indefinitely for crew access to a space station that cost U.S. taxpayers $60-100 billion depending on how the costs are counted.   Nonetheless, on November 2, a final celebration of the space shuttle program will take place as Atlantis is moved from Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC’s) Vehicle Assembly Building to the KSC Visitor Complex beginning about 7:00 am ET.  A ceremony featuring NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, KSC Director and former shuttle astronaut Bob Cabana, and other astronauts and officials is scheduled for 9:45 am ET.  Atlantis, which flew the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, in 2011 is the last of the shuttle orbiters to be moved to exhibition sites.

The event could provide an opportunity for NASA to highlight President Obama’s goals for the human spaceflight program — utilizing the International Space Station through 2020 using commercial crew and commercial cargo systems followed by sending astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025 and, separately, to orbit Mars in the 2030s.  It could also, however, give Republican politicians a bully pulpit to criticize those plans as Ryan and Mack did in recent days.

According to The Hill newspaper, on Wednesday Ryan criticized the Obama Administration for undoing the Bush plan and “[n]ow we have effectively no plan.  We are not putting people into space anymore.”   Yesterday, Mack called for a “bold” space program according to the Orlando Sentinel.   Neither he nor Ryan offered any specifics on how the space program would change under a Romney-Ryan administration, though.  The  Romney-Ryan campaign has said only that NASA does not need more money, but clearer priorities, and that, if elected, Romney would establish a group of people to advise him on what to do.

Mack’s congressional district is near Ft. Myer on Florida’s Gulf Coast — far from Kennedy Space Center and the Space Coast.  He has not been very involved in space program issues so far and does not seem particularly conversant in them.  For example, the Orlando Sentinel quotes him as saying:  “‘The idea that Russia and China are responsible for manned space launches for us is not right.”    China does not conduct any launches for the United States, of course.  In fact, NASA is prohibited by law from cooperating with China pursuant to language included in NASA appropriations bills by Mack’s fellow Republican Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA).    Mack is, however, a co-sponsor of the Space Leadership Act (H.R. 6491) introduced by Wolf and others last month.

Some space advocates rue the fact that space policy is not a significant issue in this election.  Many had expected that space would figure more prominently at least in Florida.  With NASA providing such a prime opportunity to focus on the space program four days before the election, they may get their wish.

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