During his visit to the Kennedy Space Center last month, President Barack Obama said, "I am 100 percent committed to the mission of NASA and its future." However, the Obama administration's actions have left me, Florida leaders and even former astronauts convinced that the president's space plan lacks specifics as well as the appropriate review.
During his visit, Obama pivoted from his original budget announcement because everyone in Congress was upset with his lack of vision. He did save the Orion capsule, commit to a heavy-lift rocket by 2015, promise a total of 4,500 jobs at the Cape (2,500 new ones), propose $40 million in federal retraining dollars for displaced workers and set his sights 25 years from now on humans going to Mars. However, the visit to Florida did not include a town hall meeting, open discussion or feature any discourse with the thousands of workers who will still lose their highly skilled and critically important jobs. That day, the conversation was left to a cadre of NASA officials and a very select audience to figure out.
Associated Industries of Florida is concerned that while the president has reaffirmed his promise that he would help in the transition to a new program and add more than 2,500 jobs along the Space Coast in the next two years, the Sunshine State will in fact lose more than 9,000 direct jobs at the Cape along with another 13,000 subcontractor jobs across Florida. Additionally, while there was talk that NASA's budget would increase by $6 billion over the next five years, those dollars are not solely for Florida.
Furthermore, while the president committed to continuing the private sector's involvement in space with companies like SpaceX at the Cape, which could certainly pay dividends down the road for the region and its workers, it will take time.
It seems the Obama administration will end most of NASA's Constellation program instead of extending the shuttle flights by using the four rockets/boosters that remain in various stages of completion. Extending shuttle flights would have saved most of the direct and indirect jobs that are about to disappear by the first quarter of next year. This would have also helped to close the gap between the demise of the shuttle program and the new heavy-lift rocket slated for sometime in 2015. The gap is critical because, without a shuttle, we will not have any way to get American astronauts to the International Space Station. Consequently, America will have to rely on Russia to ferry Americans to the ISS, which costs $56 million per astronaut. What happens if Russia decides to cancel the agreement? What will America do then? Perhaps China or India would be willing to bring our astronauts to and from the ISS, but America has never relied on another country to take our astronauts into space, and in this fragile world, is that really in our best interest?
Over the past year and a half, this administration has chosen to bail out Wall Street, General Motors, Chrysler, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — just to name a few. However, when it comes to America's national security, prestige and global influence, space really doesn't rank that high with our other budget priorities. When it comes to saving 21st century jobs relating to science, technology, engineering and math, which are found in abundance at the Kennedy Space Center, our leadership is unfortunately missing the mark.
During testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee, Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, said he believes there is no commitment to dollars to support a national endeavor and that "this budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to nowhere." Even one of our best astronauts knows that Obama's "plan" is really one that is just out of this world.
Barney T. Bishop III is president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida.