Advocates for manned space exploration have wondered since November whether President Obama would follow through on the commitments he made as a candidate to NASA and its Florida work force. They had to be relieved by the president's first budget. Obama committed to spend billions more, despite the worsening financial crisis, on both manned and unmanned space exploration. He stuck — at least for now — with the plan by his predecessor to return an American to the moon. The only questions left are the big ones: What are the benefits behind another ambitious run in space and how will America afford it?
The president's 2010 budget provides $18.7 billion for NASA. When combined with $1 billion from the federal stimulus, the agency's budget next year would total $2.4 billion more than it received in 2008. This increase, coming as Washington invests trillions of dollars to reverse the deteriorating economy, is a bold show of confidence in the space agency. But the Obama administration has come no closer to explaining a rationale for the moon mission than the Bush administration did. It also has not laid out how the United States would keep the manned space program alive in the five years between when it retires the space shuttle in 2010 and starts flying the next-generation Constellation craft in 2015.
Policymakers have spent too much time debating whether to fly the shuttle another year and too little time focusing on keeping NASA's mission relevant and its skilled work force intact. Even if Obama convinces himself and the American people that a moon-to-Mars mission has value, the nation would be hard-pressed to pay for it. Retiring the shuttle will also trigger a brain drain at Florida's Cape Canaveral, among other places, and make the United States more reliant on its onetime space rival, Russia, and private sector contractors. Aerospace leaders are warning state lawmakers that at least 3,500 jobs — many of them highly skilled and paid — could be lost at the Kennedy Space Center this year as the shuttle program closes.
The Obama administration has charted a broad mission for NASA — return to flight, explore global climate change, expand the commercialization of space, enhance aviation safety — at the very time a deepening recession makes it hard to keep the nation's top space engineers wedded to the space program. The Apollo program and earlier space exploration efforts focused on destinations Americans could recognize. NASA should regain that focus. The federal government needs to work with heavy aerospace states like Florida, Texas and California on ways to retain jobs, technical development, investment and research opportunities. NASA can win the support it needs to build on its historic milestones. But the administration first needs to explain where discovery, research and fascination fall as priorities.