President Barack Obama said this spring that NASA was afflicted by "a sense of drift," but the reality is far worse. The nation's space agency has no permanent administrator. It is set to retire the space shuttle, yet its replacement craft has been hard hit by technical and budget problems. The expected five-year gap between the shuttle's end and the return to manned space flight has caused a brain drain in the space industry. Officials on the Space Coast near Kennedy Space Center expect to lose as many as 10,000 jobs in the coming years. Meanwhile, the Obama administration announced last week that an independent panel would take a "fresh look" at NASA's space flight program. This is a poor time for the president to contribute to the same "sense of drift" he bemoaned in March.
The space agency needs a new sense of purpose and strong leadership to carry it out. But in Washington, the Obama White House continues to fiddle, while in Florida leaders have failed to rally around a high-tech industry that could chart a new course for the state. The embattled president of Space Florida resigned last week, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Friday that agency should "clean house.''
The president's $18.7 billion budget for NASA retains the plan to fly nine more missions before retiring the space shuttle in 2010. But the commitment to NASA seems to end there. The next-generation Constellation rocket project calls for a return to orbit by 2015 and moon-and-beyond flight by 2020. The review that Obama ordered last week should clarify by August whether the return of manned flight — and the budget commitments to make it possible — are, in this recession, a presidential priority.
The end of shuttle flights, even if they extend into 2011, will have devastating effects on Florida. The Cocoa Beach Area Chamber of Commerce estimates that job losses at Kennedy could cost another 18,000 jobs across the region. The layoffs will only compound the fall in property values as many aerospace workers try to relocate or seek retraining for other jobs.
The state needs to develop a space policy as the White House reassesses its own plans for NASA. The industry has too much history in Florida and too much promise for the state's economy to tie it solely to the whims of this administration's vision for space exploration. Florida should find incentives to keep the industry's technical base and to compete for commercial space ventures. At the least, Florida can remain on the cutting edge until the Obama administration sorts out whether, how and when to return to flight.