NASA reboot

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Last week Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, released an open letter to President Barack Obama, the first Trekkie in the White House.

The former astronaut is riled because Obama canceled a planned 2020 U.S. moon mission and yanked NASA funding for the rocket that was supposed to take astronauts there.

Obama intends to outsource some of the spacecraft business to commercial space companies, which he thinks are more innovative, nimble and cost-conscious than NASA.

Armstrong warned that pulling the plug on the rocket program, called Constellation, dooms the United States to a "long downhill slide to mediocrity." Without the ability to loft humans into orbit for many years to come, he wrote, the United States is destined to become a "second- or even third-rate" space power.

Sorry, Neil. But that's one giant leap ... of unwarranted pessimism.

Obama is charting a fresh course for American space exploration that is grounded in reality.

Reality 1: The president scrapped the project because a special panel of experts - including aerospace industry heavyweights and two former astronauts - said NASA was building the wrong rocket for the wrong destination (the moon).

Reality 2: Constellation was over budget, behind schedule and according to the federal Office of Management and Budget, "lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies."

Reality 3: Private commercial space companies already are injecting long-needed competition into a field dominated by huge aerospace contractors.

One of those entrepreneurs, SpaceX exec Elon Musk, is building a Falcon 9 rocket that he says can blast American astronauts to the space station for about $20 million - less than half what NASA now pays.

Musk, who co-founded PayPal, told us that one of the most vital innovations for the space program would be to scrap NASA's system of guaranteeing contractors a profit beyond whatever costs they run up. That just guarantees companies will find the most expensive way to do something and then milk it for as long as possible. "It's Economics 101," he says.

Are you listening, NASA?

With the U.S. space shuttle program set to be mothballed in the fall, Armstrong and some of his fellow ex-astronauts also are perturbed that Americans will need to hitch a ride from the Russians - at $55 million a ticket - to reach the international space station.

Obama's space plan still may come crashing back to Earth. Some lawmakers in Congress are balking at cutting Constellation because it means the loss of thousands of aerospace jobs in politically important states such as Florida, Texas and California.

Obama's plan is NASA's best chance for another giant leap into the cosmos. Congress needs to make it so.

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