On Heels of Campaign Promises, Obama Faces Big NASA Decisions
President-elect Barack Obama gives his acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2008.
Credit: AP Photo/Morry Gash.

WASHINGTON - As U.S. President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office in January, he does so having offered more specifics about his plans for NASA than any U.S. presidential candidate in history.

First and foremost, Obama pledged during the closing months of the campaign to add $2 billion to the U.S. space agency's budget to narrow the gap between the space shuttle's retirement and the first flight of its successor.

The pledge, which he made for the first time in August and repeated in recent weeks as he and his Republican opponent Sen. John McCain of Arizona, courted Space Coast voters in the swing state of Florida, was a far cry from Obama's first public position on the U.S. space program.

Obama gave NASA's Orion and Ares contractors plenty of cause for concern in November 2007 when he proposed paying for an $18 billion education plan in part by "delaying the NASA Constellation Program for five years." By January, however, Obama's space policy had evolved. The campaign released a position paper pledging Obama's support for completing the International Space Station, retiring the space shuttle and replacing it with Orion and Ares sooner than later. The move put Obama's space policy in synch with the exploration blueprint unveiled four years earlier by President George Bush and subsequently endorsed by Congress.

Obama continued to hone his space policy over the course of the campaign, finally releasing, in August, a seven-page plan for "Advancing the Frontiers of Space Exploration" explicitly endorsing sending human missions to the Moon by 2020.

Obama's plan also called for "expedit[ing] the development of the shuttle's successor systems" without mentioning Ares or Orion by name; endorsed NASA's efforts to spur development of commercial space station resupply services and backed congressional efforts to add at least one additional shuttle flight to the remaining manifest. Obama also said he would re-establish a White House space council. The last such council last convened under the first President Bush.

The plan was released close on the heels of Russia's invasion of neighboring Georgia, an incident that helped highlight U.S. political concerns about NASA's request to keep buying Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft until Orion and Ares, or some commercial alternative, proved ready to take over crew transport duties to and from the space station.

McCain joined two other senators in calling on Bush to put shuttle retirement on hold - at least temporarily - in light of Russia's aggression; Obama wrote Congress to urge the same. But the Illinois senator also called on lawmakers to grant NASA the legislative relief it needed from the Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) to keep buying Soyuz beyond 2011 to ensure uninterrupted access to the space station.

He then encouraged lawmakers to pay for the additional shuttle flight they were poised to authorize and his personal intervention got INKSNA relief moving again and earned him the personal thanks of NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.

"During the campaign [Obama] said many encouraging things and made important commitments about space," said Mark Albrecht, a former top aerospace executive who helped advise McCain on space issues. "Unfortunately, some of these commitments could potentially yield to other commitments made regarding new fiscal realities and timing."

Focus on the Economy 

With the U.S. economy in the midst of its worst crisis since the Great Depression and an unpopular war in Iraq driving the nation deeper into debt, Obama's focus is on the economy and national security as he prepares to take the oath of office Jan. 20.

Among those urging the president-elect not to lose sight of the challenges NASA faces includes the usual array of space advocacy groups and the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The GAO identified shuttle retirement Nov. 6 as one of the 13 "urgent issues" Obama and Congress face during the transition and first year of his administration.

"The administration needs to move quickly to nominate and fill key leadership positions within NASA because the decision on whether to retire or continue operating the space shuttle will need to be made soon," the GAO urged in a special section of its Web site devoted to the presidential transition. The GAO estimated that the cost of keeping shuttle flying past 2010 will be $2.5 billion to $4 billion and warns that it likely would be a "logistically difficult" undertaking since it would require restarting productions lines and recertifying suppliers and possibly the shuttles themselves. "On the other hand, the new administration may well decide to extend the shuttle and defer development of new transportation vehicles in light of budgetary constraints, as the new vehicles are expected to cost more than $230 billion to develop and deploy," the GAO wrote.

Scott Pace, the executive director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and one of the leaders of the Bush-Cheney transition team for NASA, said space advocates would be wise to think in terms of how space can support Obama's agenda, not the other way around.

"The first question is not what will Obama do for space, but how can space contribute to the priorities of an Obama administration," Pace said. "In this regard, there are reasons for optimism on substance and reasons for caution with regard to ability to implement given many external constraints."

Pace said he could see the Obama administration using the space program, combined with international cooperation and additional funding, to enhance the U.S. image abroad, improve the nation's economic competitiveness through innovation, and help improve national infrastructure, namely through NASA's role in modernizing air traffic management. He said any such efforts, however, would be challenged by "already tight pressure" on all discretionary spending and the United States' aging science and technology work force.

Despite these realities, Pace, who held a senior NASA post before returning to academia this year, said he would like to see Obama give NASA an additional $2 billion per year to make up for what it lost since Bush set a course for the moon in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

Bill Adkins, a Washington aerospace consultant who worked on space policy in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, said Obama probably could get an extra $2 billion from Congress for NASA if he asks for it.

"I think there will be a premium on the new Congress and the new president to show they can govern and not start off bickering about issues," Adkins said. "If Obama actually puts the $2 billion in [his budget request] that he promised in his campaign, I think Congress is likely to go along with it because it's not big enough to have a fight over. If Obama doesn't, I don't see the mood in Congress to add the money."

Other sources who follow NASA's prospects on Capitol Hill said Obama might be able to get an additional $2 billion for the space agency without having to make a formal budget request. Democrats are working on a $100 billion economic stimulus package that could be taken up this month and sent to Bush to be signed into law before the end of the year. Lawmakers also are talking about assembling a separate, possibly bigger stimulus package early next year after Obama takes office. Legislative strategists said NASA money plausibly could be added to one or both of the proposed bills.

Albrecht said personnel choices, along with top-level announcements and other action, will offer some of the earliest clues about Obama's direction on space. He said he will be watching to see whether Obama makes good on his commitment to re-establish a White House Space Council, how it is chartered and where it resides in the White House organization chart. "Next, I will look at appointments, especially to head the council and [the Defense Department] and eventually, NASA," Albrecht said. "I suspect that many of us will know these people, their styles, their agendas and their taste for change pretty well."

Pace, meanwhile, said Obama could do much worse than asking Griffin to stay on. Such a move would not be unprecedented. Dan Goldin came in toward the tail end of the first President Bush's term, served eight years under Clinton, and most of the current President Bush's first year before Sean O'Keefe was drafted for the job.

"Personally, it would make sense to keep Mike Griffin on for a smooth transition while more immediate matters are dealt with," said Pace, who worked for Griffin at NASA. "It might also make sense to keep him through the completion of the remaining shuttle flights given technical risks and challenges of each mission. Shuttle flight safety will likely remain the number one issue for any NASA administrator."

Whether Griffin would be asked to stay given the number of other people said to be interested in the job this time around remains to be seen.