President Barack Obama is right that NASA needs an overhaul. But the plan he unveiled this week, which would privatize human space flight while increasing research spending, fails to draw a clear mission for the space agency. It risks reducing NASA to a procurement office and robbing it of the vision and in-house expertise it needs. That's risky for the United States and particularly for Florida.
Obama's five-year budget plan would increase NASA's spending by $6 billion, to $100 billion. Much of that money would pay for private companies to develop launch vehicles and take over the space shuttle's job of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station. The White House was notably silent on any destination or timetable for venturing beyond low-Earth orbit.
The administration rightly wants to end the trouble-plagued Constellation return-to-the-moon program, but the plan does much more than that. NASA would move away from operations and into a research and development arm, with private companies handling manned space transport. Billions more would be spent on space-based research, launch facilities and rocket technology.
A presidential panel declared last year that the Ares I rocket project was so delayed that the Constellation program was not likely to return humans to the moon until "well into the 2030s." Clearly, the manned space program needs new direction and a sense of immediacy. It also makes sense to jump-start the commercial aerospace industry, which could revolutionize the economy and shift the burden for space exploration from taxpayers to the private sector.
But the choice should not be between building a commercial industry and retaining NASA's primacy in space. Any research into a new heavy rocket and crew capsule would inevitably build on the Ares and Orion technologies. And without a clear destination, both government and private scientists would have virtually no guidance on the country's goals for its manned space program. The plan also puts the responsibility for delivering a new exploration vehicle — and the safety of America's astronauts — in the hands of for-profit contractors. And the $3 billion set aside to develop new heavy-lift rockets is not enough to sustain a robust future for manned flight.
Obama's budget includes several elements that are good for the space program and Florida. He would extend the space station until 2020 or later. He proposes more spending for robotic scouting missions, climate change research, forecasting and other applications valuable on Earth. The administration also would spend $2 billion over five years to modernize launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center, which could capitalize on commercial space flights and agency-sponsored research.
But the 2,000 jobs the administration expects private companies to create in Florida under the plan is far less than the 12,000 NASA and private jobs that Florida's east coast expects to lose when the shuttle is retired. The state's aerospace development arm, Space Florida, will have to be aggressive; these high-tech jobs spin off research and development throughout the state. And Congress needs to look broadly at how privatization would impact NASA's ability to command and oversee the safety of a farmed-out space program. This agency has a storied history. It should not be turned into a shell.