A Translation Guide to the Obama Space Program

I find much of the current debate on the new policy direction quite infuriating, not least because many of the debaters don’t even understand it, nor does the media who report it. Here’s a recent bipartisan example, in an editorial by Congressmen Pete Olsen (R-TX) and Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), in which they equate NASA’s Constellation program with human spaceflight:

The administration’s decision to kill NASA’s Constellation program isn’t just the death knell for U.S. human space exploration, it is a decision to place America’s space program in the category of second, or even third, in the world.

But it isn’t the “death knell for U.S. human space exploration.” It’s simply the death knell for an egregiously unaffordable NASA program.

The upper house has been engaging in similar bipartisan foolishness. From Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Richard Shelby (R-AL):

President Obama’s proposed $3.8 trillion federal budget request strips funding for a return to the moon. It also would effectively outsource the transportation of astronauts to and from the International Space Station to private contractors.

Shelby characterized such contractors as “hobbyists” that lack a track record when it comes to successfully and safely launching space vehicles carrying humans. ...

"Based on initial reports about the administration’s plan for NASA, they are replacing lost shuttle jobs in Florida too slowly, risking U.S. leadership in space to China and Russia, and relying too heavily on unproven commercial companies,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla).

But the most likely near-term commercial providers are either United Launch Alliance, which builds and operates the Atlas and Delta launch systems, both of which have a very solid track record in delivering satellites worth hundreds of billions of dollars (Atlas has a unbroken string of many dozens of successful flights), or Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a new rocket and cargo/crew capsule sitting on the pad in Florida right now awaiting its first launch in the next few weeks. Some “unproven.” Some “hobby.”

The media is worse. One excellent example I roundly filleted at my blog. The reporter cheerfully interchanges the phrases “Constellation,” “space shuttle,” the “Vision for Space Exploration,” generic plans to return to the moon, space station resupply, etc. And even veteran space reporters, such as the Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor, get it wrong and confused:

A National Aeronautics and Space Administration study warns that budget and technical hurdles will likely delay development of the replacement program for the space shuttle fleet beyond the agency’s internal 2014 timetable.

The report is the agency’s most pessimistic public assessment yet of its ability to meet its own deadline for delivering the new system of rockets and exploration vehicles, called Constellation. ...

NASA officials project the total cost for Constellation at around $30 billion.

First of all, Constellation is not a replacement for the shuttle. It is both more and less than that. It replaces only the shuttle’s capability to get crew to and from orbit, and the lofting of large payloads, not its other features, such as payload return and orbital research and operations. And it is an entire architecture to get humans all the way to the lunar surface and back, something that the shuttle has never been able to do. And the total cost for Constellation is projected to be much greater than thirty billion. That price tag is for the Ares I rocket alone.

All of this mischaracterization and flawed reporting fuels hysterical and nonsensical cries of “the end of the U.S. human spaceflight program.”