NASA Workers Anxious About Obama’s Commitment to Space
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - President Barack Obama's move to abandon NASA's moon program is ratcheting up uncertainty about the future of U.S. human spaceflight just as NASA is setting out to launch five final missions before retiring the shuttle fleet.
People are anxious about their futures at Kennedy Space Center, and the increasing uncertainty raises the potential for distraction in a world where even the smallest mistake can lead to catastrophe.
"The work force down here definitely has me concerned just because they're people, and you're heading into the last year, and it is 'The Last Year,'" NASA Shuttle Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses said.
"But unless you believe we're going to come out of this budget cycle with a zero line item for NASA human space flight - which I really hope we don't do - we're going to keep going. It's going to be different, but it will be a future."
Administration officials last week said Obama on Monday would release a proposed 2011 budget that effectively would kill NASA's moon program. NASA has already spent six years and $9 billion on Project Constellation, which is developing Apollo-style Orion spacecraft as well as the embattled Ares I crew launch vehicle.
Conspicuously absent was any mention of the development of a Saturn V-class rocket to send American astronauts on missions beyond Earth orbit - perhaps on voyages to asteroids or the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos.
A presidential panel that reported to the White House last October favored development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle and missions not necessarily to the moon, but nonetheless, beyond Earth orbit.
Said NASA Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach: "When we think about the future, it gets a little cloudy."
NASA's immediate concern is the launch next Sunday of Endeavour and six astronauts on a mission to deliver a last large U.S. section to the International Space Station.
The Tranquility Module, named for the site where astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969, is launching along with an Italian-built observation deck.
Four more station assembly-and-outfitting missions are scheduled to launch by mid-September, and then 29 years of shuttle flights come to an end.
Some 7,000 jobs at KSC will be lost.
But NASA officials say the work force nonetheless is committed to launching and landing the remaining missions safely. Despite distractions, they say people are focused on the job at hand.
"They've got their heads down; they're doing their jobs just like they have on every other flight," Leinbach said.
"The guys are concentrating on what we need to do. A lot of us have a lot of years in this program, and it's going to be sad to see it end. I mean, let's be honest about it," Leinbach said.
"But the direction we are getting is that this program is going to end, and we're going to move on to the next program, and so people are concentrating on finishing this one out and getting ready for the next one."
Exactly what's next is largely an unknown here at KSC.
Administration officials said NASA's budget would be increased by $6 billion over the next five years despite a freeze on discretionary spending.
NASA will be directed to invest in the development of U.S. commercial crew transportation services - space taxis that could ferry astronauts to and from the station. Outpost operations would be extended until at least 2020.
The idea there is eliminate reliance on Russia. Once the shuttle is retired, NASA will pay Russia to fly American astronauts on round trips to the outpost. Today's market price for an individual seat: $50 million.
NASA already is paying two companies to develop the means to haul cargo to the station; one, SpaceX, will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
White House officials say the increased launch traffic from commercial crew transport services should bring 1,700 new jobs to the Space Coast.
Technology development projects might be aimed at building a super-sized rocket for eventual missions beyond Earth orbit. But it looks like those voyages won't happen before the early 2020s.
"Strategic investments" also are planned to modernize facilities at KSC, making it "the launch complex of the future," one that would attract commercial companies and new industries.
Despite the circumstances, KSC Director Robert Cabana, a former astronaut who piloted two shuttle missions and served as mission commander on two others, said work force morale is excellent.
"They're concerned. No doubt about it .But they're excited about what we're doing. They're focused on the mission. And we're excited about the future here at KSC," Cabana said in an interview earlier this month..
"The bottom line is KSC's mission is not going to change. Yes, the shuttle is going to retire. But we still have a space program. We are going to continue to be the premiere launch center for NASA, the agency, our country and the world."