NASA’s Administrator Visits Boston

Moments ago the Space Shuttle Atlantis left Pad 39A in Florida, making what's likely its last ride into orbit. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the shuttle's 1981 debut — it's been that long since the United States launched astronauts into orbit in a new vehicle — and the final shuttle flight is scheduled for November.

That three-decade-long drought is headed for four. In February, after getting recommendations from an A-list review panel, President Obama submitted a budget to Congress that proposes the cancellation of the Constellation program begun by his predecessor.

So much for NASA's Next Big Thing.

Constellation's Orion crew capsule and Ares rockets were designed to get humans once again beyond Earth orbit, with the first passenger-carrying tests to come in 2015. But the effort was underfunded from the get-go and hindered further as the space agency devoted time and resources to getting the shuttles flying again after the loss of Columbia in 2003.

So instead of continuing to fund an effort that might easily top $100 billion through 2020, the Obama administration now proposes enlisting private industry to develop the next human-rated spacecraft and, in the interim, to rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station once the Space Shuttle program ends. It was not a popular decision among space buffs who grew up reading or watching The Right Stuff.

NASA chief Charles Bolden
Former astronaut Charles Bolden, a veteran of four Space Shuttle missions, took over as NASA's administrator in July 2009.
William Litant / MIT
Against this backdrop, Charles Bolden, a former Marine and four-time shuttle astronaut, came to Boston this week in his new role as NASA administrator.

The main reason for the visit was to kick off the Summer of Innovation, in which space specialists will help engage and train educators to boost students' knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). From what I've seen, the president seems committed to giving STEM education high priority in his administration.

In any case, Bolden took time to give an informal presentation at MIT, which is home (among many other things) to the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium managed by former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman. The two high-fliers spent many years together in the astronaut corps.

I'd never met Bolden, but he struck me as folksy and engaging. I tried to imagine him locked in tough negotiations at the White House over the future of NASA or going toe to toe with reluctant subordinates. I couldn't — though he certainly has. And while no one expected Bolden to deliver major policy announcements at MIT, he still offered a few insights about where the agency is today and where it's headed.

After ticking off an expected, almost obligatory list of NASA's recent accomplishments (Hubble's 20th anniversary, first light for the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and so forth), Bolden made the point that the agency is on a "transformative path" — one backed by an administration "strongly committed" to the space program.

There's some evidence to back that latter claim. Although calling for Constellation's termination, NASA's proposed $19 billion budget for fiscal 2011 includes healthy increases for space-science programs, particularly the study of Earth from orbit.

Bolden's predecessor, Michael Griffin, had sent shock waves through the space community by waffling on whether NASA would support the International Space Station's operation past 2015, in which case it'd be dumped into the Pacific just five years after getting all the pieces in place. But Bolden says he wants to bring the ISS to full utilization (easier now that it's maintained by a six-person crew) and to operate it at least through 2020.

Ares I-X test flight
NASA’s Ares I-X test rocket soars skyward from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 28, 2009.
NASA / Sandra Joseph / Kevin O'Connel
President Obama has even relented a bit on killing Constellation outright — at a space summit he convened last month in Florida, the president revealed his plan (video clip here) to redirect future human exploration away from the Moon and toward Mars. A key intermediate milestone would be sending astronauts to visit an asteroid. There's even a small silver lining for the axed Constellation program, in that Bolden has been directed to develop a scaled-down version of the Orion crew capsule to serve as an escape vehicle should an emergency arise on the ISS.

As to when all this might come to pass, Bolden isn't working to a fixed timetable. "Maybe as early as 2020 we'll fly another circumlunar mission in some version of Orion," he told the MIT audience. "Maybe around 2025 we'll send someone to chase an asteroid."

As good (or bad) as all that sounds, the nation's space community hasn't entirely bought into the proposed redirections for NASA. Nor has Congress weighed in, let alone approved the proposed budget. Much of the space agency's workforce of 18,000 employees and more than 100,000 contractors are involved in heavy-metal work — building and launching big space machines. How the new "transformative path" will affect NASA's Johnson, Marshall, and Kennedy space centers remains to be seen.

13 thoughts on “NASA’s Administrator Visits Boston

  1. Ken

    Just a schill for the Obama administration, incapable or unwilling to stand up against the biggest threat to the Space program in 60 years. How he can look the surviving members of the Apollo program in the face is unimaginable. The current Bolden NASA administration, lacks any coherent goals, specifics or timetables.

    He should be ashamed, and we should be ashamed for letting this happen. The Constellation program was pennnies out of the administrations budget plans.

  2. John Rombi

    Well we (as a world) can bale out the banks that caused the WFC, but fund space exploration………….no way!!
    Short sighted stupidity……….Obama you’re a great disappointment.

  3. Russ

    Being 12 when Russia sent the first satellite up & watching intently as JFK appraised the situation & took a great interest in all things scientific & especially astronautical – he knew how to find the right people.. and how to oversee them, well.. the rest was history.. Until the money machine eliminated JFK, RFK & MLK. Then tricky Dick inc. began the cuts.. I watched even more intently over the years. How the fabulous Saturn V was trashed (not before it hefted the wonderful Skylab into orbit, all 85 tons or so) and we had an excellent beginning of a permanent space station.. until.. you know.. and so it went, right into the ocean along with our once great scientific oriented country. The shuttle – the original design.. was much better. Larger payload and.. look it all up.. Then the solid fuel boosters – cheapened and depended on O – rings ~ Hubble – Bush inc would have ditched it too.. Don’t forget the SSC. And – oh, you all know too. You are just as much into science as I am.

    This has been the ‘goal’ of those actually running our nation.. Eisenhower warned us.. and as for Obama – he has been waltzed down the primrose lane by experts – experts in duping Mr nice guy ‘Barry’. Just as with War(s). Obama MUST delegate responsibility, he ‘trusts’ his.. ‘advisors’..

    EEEEEK…!

    PS – Remember reading or seeing the movie: ‘From the Earth to the Moon’..??

  4. Anthony Barreiro

    The director of any federal agency, including NASA, serves at the discretion of the president. To call Bolden “a shill for Obama” is merely to put a negative connotation on the obvious. If Bolden didn’t believe there was any merit in the administration’s proposed budget, he would resign. Based on what I read in the news I believe that Bolden is doing a good job, and the proposed budget, while imperfect, is reasonable, especially within the larger context of two overseas wars, a huge budget deficit, and a lingering recession.

  5. Anthony Barreiro

    The director of any federal agency, including NASA, serves at the discretion of the president. To call Bolden “a shill for Obama” is merely to put a negative connotation on the obvious. If Bolden didn’t believe there was any merit in the administration’s proposed budget, he would resign. Based on what I read in the news I believe that Bolden is doing a good job, and the proposed budget, while imperfect, is reasonable, especially within the larger context of two overseas wars, a huge budget deficit, and a lingering recession.

  6. Phil

    OK, there are certain things we NEED to do in space: communications, weather, military intelligence, resources & environment monitoring, solar weather monitoring. These are mandatory, and not all come under NASA’s budget. Some things are GOOD to do: science in general (at a minimum, unmanned probes, rovers, sample return missions). Putting boot prints on the Moon (AGAIN!) and on Mars falls into the category of NICE but not essential. No one has explained how sending people into space does /anything/ more quickly, safely, and cheaply than robots can do it.

    Yes, I’m old enough to remember watching the Apollo astronauts bunny hopping across the Moon. It’s WAY COOL. But Way Cool does not justify the tremendous extra expense of sending up people instead of robots. The cost of life support, multiply redundant systems for safety, a bigger rocket to launch the whole thing, and extensive testing adds a lot to the bill for no gains. Let’s not even talk about how much more it costs to “fix” things when there’s a loss of life.

    Does anybody really /care/ that we’ve been to the Moon? Ask a random sample of people from around the World, and I’ll bet you most won’t even know we’ve been there. The US gained no lasting prestige for going to the Moon. We’ll gain none for going to Mars. There were some minor technology spinoffs. But nothing was done that couldn’t have been done faster and cheaper with robots.

    We sent out human explorers to the far corners of the Earth because there were no robots at that time. We went not only for national pride and bragging rights, but also /to stay there/ for plunder, strategic advantage, people to enslave, etc. There were strategic, military, and (most of all) economic reasons to explore and exploit. I don’t see any of them applying to space. Sorry. China wants to go to the Moon? So what? Let them waste their money!

  7. Michael C. Emmert

    Well, they didn’t find the right stuff with the Apollo missions. Later LCROSS found some of the right stuff, but not enough; we’d run out of that quicker than the Permian Basin (W’s hometown of Midland, Texas) ran out of oil.

    I’m waiting for the Dawn mission. I think there’s lots of The Right Stuff on little dwarf planet Ceres. It’s big enough to have undergone the geological process called, “differentiation”.

    Ares I was designed to go straight to the Moon and is unsuitable for other missions. We need a GOOD way to get into orbit; once there we need GOOD engines to get around. Constellation has been likened to archaeology, why are we still making Chinese firecrackers?

    And there’s this to consider; other nations feel they are so far behind, they’ll never catch up. We need to share some of the expenses on these projects.

    President Obama is doing with the Space program what a lot of people have been saying needs to be done for a long time. It was W who came up with the fatally flawed Constellation; it was W who canceled the X-33. W and Tricky Dicky thought these things were luxuries but they were wrong. Nixon’s face on the Moon is obscene.

    President Obama HAS SAID the Space program is a neccessity. This was a response to people who believe the Space program is an unaffordable luxury that we shouldn’t spend ANY money on. He was NOT attacking any specific program as being a luxury. Trying to make it sound like the President is saying that is a logical fallacy, i.e. putting words in people’s mouths that they never said so they could use the false words against him.

    It’s obvious who’s doing this. It’s people who want the Space program to be an exclusive entity of the Republican Party and, more narrowly, of the military. It’s “For ALL Mankind”, people.

  8. JLM

    “W and Tricky Dicky thought these things were luxuries but they were wrong. Nixon’s face on the Moon is obscene. President Obama HAS SAID the Space program is a neccessity. This was a response to people who believe the Space program is an unaffordable luxury that we shouldn’t spend ANY money on.”

    Have you actually looked at Obama’s pre-campaign views on NASA & space exploration? If so, you shouldn’t have any problem understanding why he (not Richard Nixon) cancelled the Constellation program. He couldn’t care less that this country will have zero access to low earth orbit for the next 20 years or more, unless we hitch a ride with the Russians, Chinese, Indians or maybe even the North Koreans by then.

  9. GRM

    I witnessed the whole process in my lifetime – from Sputnik to the end of the Shuttle. I believe that the best thing to happen to our manned space program is for China, India or Japan to launch astronauts to the moon. That may happen someday soon, and when it does, watch for a complete turn-around in our national policy on manned spaceflight. We’ll be back in the fight soon enough.

  10. Phil

    Some more thoughts…
    **
    Why go back to the Moon? The place is no good for science (too dusty), and isn’t it a lot easier to put telescopes in orbit, rather than having to fight gravity (structural engineering)? It’s trivial to shield radio telescopes from Earth-origin interference, rather than placing scopes on the far side. Some day in the far distant future, the He-3 in the soil /might/ be a useful resource, but at the pace we’re developing thermonuclear reactors, any He-3 we collect will be long gone by the time we can use it. Let’s wait until then to mine the stuff (and will that even require humans?).
    **
    Would the Moon be useful as a source of materials for building deep space vessels? I doubt it. You still have to climb out of a gravity well with your product. It would be much easier to mine and process asteroids. Either way, you have to haul up from Earth your entire processing system.
    **
    What’s the hurry to get to Mars? We don’t know yet if there’s life there. I guarantee you that when the first human opens the hatch on their lander, the place will be irreversibly contaminated. All we will be able to do when we see a microbe is assign a /probability/ that it’s native. We’ll never know for certain whether a bug we find is descended from something we brought along (possibly greatly mutated by radiation and soil chemicals) or native. A robotic lab (more advanced than Viking) or a sample return mission would make so much more sense than sending humans for the purpose of seeing if there’s life on Mars. Granted, no robotic lander can be perfectly sterilized, but at least we have a chance at avoiding massive contamination of Mars.

  11. Lon

    IMHO – we still need our heroes, not robots. We need to relate to the human factor. I also hear my many people say we are throwing money away into space, what?? Do they actually think we are loading a rocket with money and blasting it into space? Look at the spin-offs of the technology, hi-tech companies, educated engineers, firefighter protection equipment…, oh.. I bet you don’t even know the real story as to why we are able to use microprocessors today… vacuum tubs in space???. Unfortunately some knowledge will not be recorded in our history books and be lost forever.

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