2016 Election Insight: An Unnecessary Choice

As the U.S. presidential nominating process reaches its eventual conclusion, and the intraparty commentary and debate subsides in both parties, I am hopeful the real issues underlying much of the anger and frustration expressed during this election season will find a more tempered expression. Then we can have a more focused, substantive discussion of the serious issues and concerns facing the nation.

Among those will be the question of the proper role of government, and the balance between public and private sector roles in providing services and undertaking key activities. One illustrative realm in which I have specific experience in dealing with this issue is space exploration, and especially human spaceflight. As a senior staff member for the Senate Commerce Committee I had the opportunity to participate in crafting a compromise that sought just such a balance.

The budget request President Barack Obama sent Congress in 2010 reflected a proposal to bring to an end the era of government-owned-and-operated space launch vehicles. Its most dramatic element was the cancellation of the Constellation program, which included launch vehicles to replace the space shuttle for backup delivery of payloads and crew to the International Space Station and to low-Earth orbit. This included the capability to transport crew, cargo and exploration vehicles beyond low Earth orbit, to destinations like the moon, Mars, and places in between. Fundamentally, cancellation would mean the end of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), initiated by President George W. Bush in January 2004. Instead, President Obama planned to rely on what were then mostly unproven and in some cases non-existent private, commercially built and operated transportation systems.

What the Obama administration, and some of its leading political appointees at NASA failed to recognize — or chose to ignore — was that the Congress had overwhelmingly endorsed most of the main elements of the VSE in both the 2005 and 2008 NASA Authorization Acts, and was thus very unlikely to placidly accept such a clear rejection of that vision and the strong consistent, bicameral and bipartisan congressional consensus surrounding it.

The resulting firestorm of opposition to the proposal led to the development, step by painful step, of a carefully crafted compromise that was eventually adopted unanimously by the Senate and overwhelmingly by the House and signed into law as the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. In the area of human spaceflight, that compromise reinforced the long-term vision for NASA as the eventual human exploration of Mars and continuous human presence beyond low Earth orbit.

  • It reiterated the importance of expanded and broad based research aboard the International Space Station, including non-NASA government agencies, academia, and private or commercial research organizations.
  • It preserved much of the heritage of the space shuttle program, both in infrastructure and core expertise and skills, as well as in design and development of a replacement heavy lift launch vehicle.
  • It retained the Orion crew vehicle as a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to launch aboard the new Space Launch System and carry humans beyond low Earth orbit.
  • It preserved the development and use of commercial cargo capability and endorsed and supported the careful and orderly development and use of commercial crew launch capabilities.

Funding levels commensurate with the policy requirements in the bill were authorized.

The act substantially calmed the waters within the spaceflight community and established a sustainable policy framework for the nation’s next generation in space.

President Obama signaled his support for the legislation before it was even reported from the Senate Commerce Committee, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden encouraged support for its adoption in the

House, and the president ultimately signed the bill into law. Unfortunately, there remained those within the White House Office of Management and Budget and NASA’s senior ranks who continued to believe that launch vehicle development for beyond-Earth exploration should be commercial, and not government-owned. Consequently, White House budget requests for succeeding years ignored the authorized levels, and created a “Hobson’s Choice” between the Space Launch System/Orion development and the commercial crew vehicle development by reducing the required funding levels for one at the obvious expense of the other. Not only did that undermine the timely development of the government launch system — and commercial systems — but it undermined the balanced approach that constituted the carefully constructed compromise embodied in the law.

Space exploration has been an important area of government leadership and investment since the dawn of the space age, and it must continue to be within the government portfolio. But supporting and enabling private, commercial expansion into space exploration involvement, as partners, service providers, and eventually successors, is also an essential feature of the next generation of U.S. space exploration. It should not be a question of one versus the other. The nation needs both capabilities to maintain a leadership role in space. Both should be robustly and consistently supported and funded.

Jeff Bingham served as the senior Republican staffer for space issues for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation from April 2005 until September 2013.