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Old vs. new space policies

Jim Young / Reuters
President Barack Obama and SpaceX founder Elon Musk tour a launch pad where

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is being readied for testing. NASA is paying SpaceX

to develop the rocket as a means of transport to the International Space Station.

The backers and the opponents of the White House's new policy on America's future space effort largely agree on where they'd like to see NASA going in the 2030s: beyond the moon, to asteroids and Mars. The battle is really over what NASA will be doing (or not doing) in 2012 ... which, by the way, is an election year.

Today President Barack Obama outlined the main points of the revised plan: Keep working on the next-generation Orion crew spaceship, start work by 2015 on a heavy-lift rocket for going beyond Earth orbit, stick with the International Space Station until at least 2020, build a spaceship capable of going beyond the moon by 2025, land on an asteroid, send a mission into Martian orbit in the mid-2030s, and land on the Red Planet in (Obama's) lifetime.

Even the president's critics might go along with those parts of the plan, with quibbles here and there. (For example, how much effort should we put into the space station?) Their big problem has to do with what's missing: the Ares 1 rocket that was supposed to send cargo and crew into Earth orbit.

That's the most obvious piece of the Constellation program that doesn't show up in Obama's new plan. Instead of developing a new launch vehicle in house, the way it's been done for almost five decades, NASA would purchase rides on other people's rockets in the near term. It's similar to the distinction between building a car and renting it from someone else.

The point is ... will that car be made in the USA, or in Russia? Will American companies falter, or decide to sit this one out, and leave the spaceflight marketplace to Russia and China, India and Japan? The critics of Obama's policy are uneasy about that, even in the wake of today's speech in Florida.

"The president’s announcement today, unfortunately, still will do nothing to ensure America’s superiority in human space exploration or to decrease our reliance on Russia in the interim," U.S. Rep Ralph Hall, R-Texas, the ranking GOP member of the House Science and Technology Committee, said in a statement. Hall said he'd work with others to come up with legislation that would essentially keep the Ares rocket program alive, at the expense of emerging commercial launch ventures.

That's what the central debate will be about: the old track for building NASA's rockets vs. a new, largely untested track. As Obama pointed out, commercial players have always been the ones who built NASA's rockets. The new track, however, reduces the space agency's role in developing those launch vehicles. Rather than guaranteeing that all the costs will be covered, NASA will provide only some of the up-front money - and then pay for launch services rendered.

That means more risk for the rocket builders - and that's why the traditional players are hanging back. Reuters quoted a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Orion spaceship, as saying that the company's continued participation in the revised program would depend on how the deal is restructured.

Why restructure things at all? The fact is that the old way was not working, due to underfunding and technical problems. Last year, an independent panel projected that the Ares 1 rocket wouldn't have been ready until 2017, and that a human mission to the moon couldn't have taken place until 2028 at the earliest. Actually landing on the moon would have take even longer, the panel said.

The lagging timetable pointed up the need for new technologies that could offer shortcuts to space exploration, rather than sticking with an "Apollo on steroids" strategy. At least that's the way members of the independent panel, and then the White House, came to see it. If Obama's timetable comes to pass - and that's a big "if" - Americans will be way past the moon by 2028.

Commercializing trips to the International Space Station is the first big shortcut. Hall and other critics of the plan worry that the heavyweights of the space industry - Lockheed Martin, Boeing, ATK and Northrop Grumman - will bow out, and that the lesser-known competitors won't meet NASA's requirements for safety and reliability.

"Relying on unproven and undeveloped privately owned systems places our nation's space program at risk and raises serious concerns about viability, safety, cost and America's superiority in space exploration," Hall said.

Other companies are looking forward to new opportunities, however, and some of those companies have been in the space business for decades.

"As we watch the president's path forward unfold, we're certainly not disappointed in it," Chris Young, president of geospatial systems at ITT, told Reuters at the National Space Symposium in Colorado. ITT's space products include cameras that produce satellite pictures.

Aerojet, which is tasked with making the engines for the Orion spaceship, also had a positive perspective on the new approach. The company's president and chief executive, Scott Seymour, told Reuters that Obama's plans will promote "a healthy competitive environment which is going to push all of us into sharpening our pencils and putting our best foot forward."

The new approach is due to get its first test in the weeks ahead, when California-based SpaceX is scheduled to launch its Falcon 9 rocket for the first time. This will be the first outing of a rocket that was developed with millions of dollars of NASA seed money, but with new-style, private-sector management. Obama was given a tour of the SpaceX launch pad during his Florida visit.

As you might expect, SpaceX's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, hailed today's speech - saying it could be as important as President John Kennedy's "We Choose to Go to the Moon" speech in 1962.

"For the first time since Apollo, our country will have a plan for space exploration that inspires and excites all who look to the stars," Musk said. "Even more important, it will work."

Will it work? If the new plan doesn't meet with success in the next couple of years, on the launch pad as well as on the jobs front, Obama could have a tough re-election campaign in Florida. Is it possible that we'll be talking about yet another space vision in 2013? What do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 12:45 a.m. ET April 16: It's worth noting that the Ares rocket development effort is continuing, even though it was "canceled" by NASA. Until Congress issues new directives, the space agency can't completely shut down the program. This week, NASA and its partners conducted a successful drop test of the Ares 1 drogue parachute. Here are pictures from ATK.  

More about Obama's space policy:

More about the old vs. new space debate:

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