To Not So Boldly Go?

John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, made some disturbing comments Friday on the NPR radio program Science Friday.

Holdren – director of the Office of Science and Technology, Executive Office of the President – backed away from the timeframe spelled out by former President George W. Bush for America’s return to the moon.

In January 2004 Bush announced that the United States will return to the moon possibly as early as 2015 and no later than 2020, and that astronauts would establish a long-term base on the satellite.

Other key aspects of the vision were that the space shuttle fleet would retire by 2010, the year by which the International Space Station (ISS) was to be completed; a “crew exploration vehicle” to replace the shuttle and take astronauts to the moon would be developed by 2008 and flown with crew by 2010; and that lunar experiences would prepare NASA for flights to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. Bush said $11 billion in existing NASA funding would be shifted into the initiative over the following five years, and he would ask for another $1 billion over that time.

ATK, the aerospace company that builds the shuttle’s reusable booster engines in a plant near Promontory, Box Elder County, has made steady progress toward the goals. With a $1.8 billion contract signed in 2007, ATK is the prime contractor for the first stage of the Ares I crew launch vehicle that is supposed to take astronauts to the moon and the Ares I-X simulator. ATK has tested a new parachute for the Ares I lower stage, and last December it carried out a static firing at Promontory of a gigantic, 15-million horsepower rocket motor of the type intended for both the shuttle and Ares I.

According to a company release, Mike Kahn, executive vice president and general manager of ATK Launch Systems, commented, “This test will aid in the development of Ares I and help provide a smooth transition as the shuttle program comes to an end and efforts on Ares I development ramp up even more.” Acoustic measurements were made near the aging motor specifically to gather data for Ares I.

As far as anyone in the public knows, the program has been trotting along briskly and has reasonable funding. But on Friday Holdren indicated the new administration is rethinking at least the timetable.

Ira Flatow, host of Science Friday, asked Holdren, “Are we changing our mission in space now?”

No, he replied, a blue-ribbon panel will review America’s options for pursuing the missions. “We have a gap coming up in the capacity to put astronauts in space on American launchers between the time the shuttle program is scheduled to end at the end of 2010 and the availability of the next generation launcher, which is scheduled to be 2015, 2016, sometime in that time frame.”

Also, the agency wants to think about how to extend the usefulness of the ISS beyond 2016.

Then Holdren dropped a bombshell: “Another challenge is the question of when are we going back to the moon, when are we going to go beyond, how can those aspirations be reconciled with the other needs within NASA and with the budget,” he said.

Flatow asked, “But President Bush did set a date for going back to the moon. Are you saying that date now is on the table or it’s up in the air or we don’t know?”

“Well, indeed, President Bush announced a grand vision with specific dates but he never did provide the budget that would be consistent with getting there,” Holdren said “And so obviously one of the things we have to look at under realistic budget constraints is whether that date is obtainable or not.”

This major space program has been under development for the past five years — half the length of time the original moon program required from start to landing. Despite what Holdren said, heavy financial commitments have been made to advance it. Also, much of the hardware is already in place or can be adapted from existing systems.

It sounds like the administration is getting weak-kneed.

Time and again, vital American scientific programs have been scrapped in mid-stride.

NASA killed the last three planned Apollo moon landings. After all the expense and risk, the deaths and the drama, astronauts visited the moon just six times. Only the last flight, Apollo 17 in 1972, carried a scientist to the surface.

In 1993, after 11 years of work and an expenditure of $2 billion, Congress killed the Superconducting Supercollider, leaving the field of extreme high-energy accelerators to European scientists. Repairs are nearly finished on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and it should be restarted this fall. It may well lead to the discovery of a new physics.

To be fair, Holdren said the country is not changing its missions in space. But he indicated it was rethinking such factors as when America will go back to the moon. The problem with that kind of commitment is that one extension of time leads to another, and another. Delayed long enough, a program loses steam. Delayed long enough and it’s easy to cancel.

What America needs is a strong commitment — the type of goal President John F. Kennedy set in the moon program, when he specified a difficult timetable: “this decade.” We did it then and we can meet tough goals again.

For that matter, President Bush set a good, specific national goal.

President Obama has stressed that it’s time to put science back at the top of the country’s agenda. He has called for the United States to reclaim its place as the world leader in science and technology.

For his administration to walk away from the lunar base commitment at this late stage — or to substantially delay the program under the ancient excuse of needing money elsewhere just now — would damage American science and prestige.

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