When President Obama first outlined his plan for the American space program, he made a dramatic shift from the approach held by previous administrations in encouraging the private sector to take over low-Earth orbital responsibilities so that NASA could focus on deep space missions to Mars. Now, nearly 3 years after announcing his plans, a single private spacecraft has yet to fly, and Congress is starting to get impatient.
In a televised hearing on Wednesday, several members of Congress were highly critical of NASA and the slow progress of the private sector.
Speaking the frustrations of many for the lack of visible progress, Ralph Hall, chairman of the House Committee of Space and Technology, said that he was tired of “hearing excuses and delay after delay,” adding that “NASA’s spent $1.6 billion on this effort so far and the nation doesn’t have very much to show for it.”
So, are the congressman’s accusations true?
At the most basic level, yes, after all, the world has yet to see the launch of a privately-owned space vehicle. On the other hand, there has been a lot of unpublicized (in the mainstream media) progress toward the ultimate goal of launching private spacecraft into orbit, where the goal is to have them take over for NASA in the business of flying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and for other low Earth orbit activities.
As of now, the culmination of all this work, private spaceflights, will be taking place in the near future with SpaceX (which was awarded a government contract to deliver supplies to the ISS) aiming for its first flight in April and Orbital Science Corporation is aiming for a September flight.
In the end, it will be interesting to see how the president’s goals for space and their progress (or lack thereof) become political issues in an election year.
Right now, a lot of criticism for NASA and the private sector’s lack of perceived results have come from the Republicans, whose resurgence in 2010 can be attributed to a pledge to reduce government spending. Right now, NASA is throwing a lot of money toward private space firms in order to help speed up the development of private spacecraft. Obviously, budget hawks will be quick to seize on the lack of flights as a reason to reduce or cut off funding altogether. On the other hand, Democrats are more likely to side with the president in encouraging patience, pointing out, rightfully so, that building a complete space vehicle package from the ground-up takes a lot of time, and money.
In the end, while election 2012 will not be decided by America’s spaceflight policies, it will be interesting to see how the heated political rhetoric of an election year will impact the immediate future of America’s future in space.
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