On Heels of Campaign Promises, Obama Faces Big NASA Decisions

Report Urges President-Elect to Forge Shuttle Plan
President-elect Barack Obama gives his acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2008. (Image 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 andforemost, Obama pledged during the closing months of the campaign to add $2billion to the U.S. space agency's budget to narrow the gap between the spaceshuttle'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 heand his Republican opponent Sen. John McCain of Arizona, courted Space Coastvoters in the swing state of Florida, was a far cry from Obama's first publicposition on the U.S. space program.

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

Obamacontinued to hone hisspace 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 planalso called for "expedit[ing] the development of the shuttle's successorsystems" without mentioning Ares or Orion by name; endorsed NASA'sefforts to spur development of commercial space station resupply services andbacked congressional efforts to add at least one additional shuttle flight tothe remaining manifest. Obama also said he would re-establish a White Housespace council. The last such council last convened under the first PresidentBush.

The plan wasreleased close on the heels of Russia's invasion of neighboring Georgia, anincident that helped highlight U.S. political concerns about NASA's request tokeep buying Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft until Orion and Ares, or somecommercial alternative, proved ready to take over crew transport duties to andfrom the space station.

McCainjoined 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 tourge the same. But the Illinois senator also called on lawmakers to grantNASA the legislative relief it needed from the Iran, North Korea, SyriaNonproliferation Act (INKSNA) to keep buying Soyuz beyond 2011 to ensureuninterrupted access to the space station.

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

"Duringthe campaign [Obama] said many encouraging things and made importantcommitments about space," said Mark Albrecht, a former top aerospaceexecutive who helped advise McCain on space issues. "Unfortunately, someof these commitments could potentially yield to other commitmentsmade regarding new fiscal realities and timing."

Focus onthe Economy 

With theU.S. economy in the midst of its worst crisis since the Great Depression and anunpopular war in Iraq driving the nation deeper into debt, Obama's focus is onthe economy and national security as he prepares to take the oath of officeJan. 20.

Among thoseurging the president-elect not to lose sight of the challenges NASA facesincludes the usual array of space advocacy groups and the nonpartisaninvestigative arm of Congress, the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The GAOidentified shuttle retirement Nov. 6 as one ofthe 13 "urgent issues" Obama and Congress face during thetransition and first year of his administration.

"Theadministration needs to move quickly to nominate and fill key leadershippositions within NASA because the decision on whether to retire or continueoperating the space shuttle will need to be made soon," the GAO urged in aspecial section of its Web site devoted to the presidential transition. The GAOestimated that the cost of keeping shuttle flying past 2010 will be $2.5billion to $4 billion and warns that it likely would be a "logisticallydifficult" undertaking since it would require restarting productions linesand recertifying suppliers and possibly the shuttles themselves. "On theother hand, the new administration may well decide to extend the shuttle anddefer development of new transportation vehicles in light of budgetaryconstraints, as the new vehicles are expected to cost more than $230 billion todevelop and deploy," the GAO wrote.

Scott Pace,the executive director of the Space Policy Institute at George WashingtonUniversity 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 supportObama's agenda, not the other way around.

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

Pace saidhe could see the Obama administration using the space program, combined withinternational cooperation and additional funding, to enhance the U.S. imageabroad, improve the nation's economic competitiveness through innovation, andhelp improve national infrastructure, namely through NASA's role in modernizingair traffic management. He said any such efforts, however, would be challengedby "already tight pressure" on all discretionary spending and theUnited States' aging science and technology work force.

Despitethese realities, Pace, who held a senior NASA post before returning toacademia this year, said he would like to see Obama give NASA anadditional $2 billion per year to make up for what it lost since Bush seta course for the moon in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbiaaccident.

BillAdkins, a Washington aerospace consultant who worked on space policy in theU.S. House of Representatives and Senate, said Obama probably could get anextra $2 billion from Congress for NASA if he asks for it.

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

Othersources who follow NASA's prospects on Capitol Hill said Obama might be able toget an additional $2 billion for the space agency without having to make a formalbudget request. Democrats are working on a $100 billion economic stimuluspackage that could be taken up this month and sent to Bush to be signed intolaw before the end of the year. Lawmakers also are talking about assembling aseparate, possibly bigger stimulus package early next year after Obama takesoffice. Legislative strategists said NASA money plausibly could be added to oneor both of the proposed bills.

Albrechtsaid personnel choices, along with top-level announcements and other action,will offer some of the earliest clues about Obama's direction on space. He saidhe will be watching to see whether Obama makes good on his commitment tore-establish a White House Space Council, how it is chartered and where itresides in the White House organization chart. "Next, I will look atappointments, especially to head the council and [the DefenseDepartment] and eventually, NASA," Albrecht said. "I suspect thatmany of us will know these people, their styles, their agendas and their tastefor change pretty well."

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

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

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



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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and SpaceNews.com. He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.