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New NASA Administrator Will Have His Hands Full

Charles Bolden will have to address some immediate questions about the future of America's space program.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

May 29, 2009 - 12:00 am
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It was actually a fairly prompt appointment for this particular position. Most administrations have taken longer to find a NASA administrator. But it seemed more important to those concerned with the space program, because it is in a state of high flux and many decisions must be made soon. It’s a particularly challenging time because the incoming administrator will have to await the result of the new Augustine Commission that will provide recommendations on the fate of the shuttle, the Constellation program, and space transportation to support human exploration in general. Bolden will be starting his job at a very uncertain time, both technically and politically, and will not necessarily be able to chart his own course.

In fact, there are rumors that the meeting with the prospective NASA head and the president didn’t go all that smoothly — that the president proposed that it might be necessary to cut the human space flight budget, given the economic times in which the country finds itself (though administration critics would point out that much of this is due to the president’s own budgetary profligacy). A four-time shuttle astronaut could hardly be expected to take over an agency that was going to shut down NASA human space flight, nor could the incoming deputy, given her own history as the former head of a major public advocacy group for the human settlement of space. So at least they presumably believe that the nation will not retreat from human space flight during this administration.

The big question, of course, is how to do it and not break the budget.

There is abundant irony in the situation (as is often the case with space policy). The shuttle, whose landing was going to have been synchronized with the announcement, had repaired the telescope that prospective administrator Bolden had delivered almost two decades earlier as a shuttle pilot. The mission  demonstrated, once again, the versatility of humans in space for meeting, grabbing, repairing objects, and the assembly of systems on orbit. The space station is almost complete, demonstrating the ability to assemble large structures. But the current NASA plans for future exploration beyond earth orbit, under investigation by the Augustine commission, completely turn their back on this capability and abandon it, putting in place a system that will have no such capability. Instead, it will feature an architecture that relies on launching everything needed for a lunar expedition in a launch or two, regressing our capabilities to those of four decades ago, the last time we went to the moon.

Let’s hope that this new administrator, unlike the last one, wants to look to the future and not replicate the past at great expense. Let’s hope that he wants to build a true “interstate highway system” for space and provide a direction that meets the Aldridge commission requirements of supporting free enterprise, national security, affordability, and sustainability. And let’s hope he is in favor of  opening up space to not just a few NASA astronauts a couple times a year at outrageously high costs to the taxpayer, but to the rest of us as well.

Good luck, general.

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Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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