By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
Note: This is the third article in a four-part series on the creation and evolution of U.S. space policy. In this article, we’ll examine the 21st-century space policies of the George W. Bush, Jr. and Barack Obama administrations.
George W. Bush’s (“Bush Jr.’s”) two-term presidency and his national space policy were largely shaped by two tragic events: the terrorist attacks in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, and the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003. As a result of these key incidents, Bush Jr.’s space policy was heavily oriented toward promoting national security interests and avoiding more human casualties from the space program.
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Bush Overhauls US Space Policy
In January 2004, barely five months following the Columbia shuttle tragedy, Bush Jr. announced a major overhaul of U.S. space policy in what he called the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). Therein, Bush Jr. laid out the goals for NASA’s near- and long-term future.
His stated objectives included the use of robotic space missions to explore the solar system and beyond; the revitalization of mission agendas for human space exploration; and a plan to revisit the Moon by 2020 and Mars. These goals were contained in a package that Bush Jr. referred to as the Constellation program, which included the pursuit of new space research and development and partnerships with other friendly nations who shared these ambitions.
These goals, and the research committees and studies dedicated to supporting them, all seemed entirely peaceful and promotional of space missions for scientific and exploratory purposes. The final product, however, was not an exact reflection of Bush Jr.’s vision. The actual national space policy released in 2006 placed a much larger emphasis on national defense and security prerogatives.
Bush Jr.’s space policy rejected any arms control agreements — other than international accords like the Outer Space Treaty — limiting U.S. ability to develop and deploy space-based technologies (surveillance, monitoring, communications and perhaps even weapons) that would further national security interests. The Bush Jr. administration emphasized that there were no plans to launch weapons platforms into space, and there is no evidence that any such weapons were ever deployed. But this presidential policy was seen as a major change in direction because it deviated from the historical precedent of utilizing space for explicitly peaceful purposes.
Obama Made Decisive Changes to Space Policy
When Barack Obama took office, he made some decisive changes to the space policy set forth by his predecessor, primarily through a lengthy speech that he gave at Kennedy Space Center in 2010. In the speech, he set forth the following agenda for NASA and other agencies supporting the U.S. space program.
First, after a review of the Constellation program begun by Bush Jr., that nearly all of the components, including launch vehicles and other vital pieces, should be abandoned for reasons of time and resource efficiencies. The only part of the program that was spared was the Orion manned capsule development, so the capsule could be used as a transport to the International Space Station (ISS) to lessen the dependence on Russian spacecraft for sending American astronauts to and from orbit.
Second, Obama abandoned Bush Jr.’s plan to make the first manned trip back to the Moon. Instead, he opted for a plan that called for landing astronauts first on an asteroid around 2025 and then on Mars in the 2030s.
Third, Obama endorsed — for the first time ever — a partnership with the private sector for basic low-Earth orbit space logistics. He proposed that NASA would pay for missions to be launched aboard rockets belonging to private companies like Space X.
Fourth, Obama announced an extension of ISS funding and support for an additional five years from 2015 to 2020. It has since been extended again to 2024.
Finally, Obama proposed a replacement for launch vehicles that were originally planned as part of the discarded Constellation program. The President called this replacement an advanced heavy-lift rocket and projected that its design should be complete by 2015. However, the rocket was never built.
The Best Aspects of Bush Jr.’s and Obama’s Space Policies
As with most policies, their consequences can be mixed depending on their oversight and execution. This was the case with both of these presidents.
The best points about Bush’s VSE and his national policy statements from 2006 were his vision for manned missions to Mars and the Constellation program for a successor to the Space Shuttle. Humankind’s survival ought to be our species’ highest priority, so a plan to colonize Mars — the most Earth-like planet in our reach — should be at the top of the priority list.
If we are to aim for boots on Mars within any protracted length of time, then we must have a suite of launch vehicles and spacecraft capable of making such journeys. So the plan to head for Mars and the implementation of a design program to get us there were perhaps Bush Jr.’s greatest contributions to space policy.
The best aspects of the Obama space policy were the continued aim for manned missions to other celestial bodies and the promotion of privatization of space logistics. Although Obama changed course away from a plan to return to the Moon, he still kept a focus on Mars — even though it was a focus that projected missions 20-25 years out.
Also, once the Constellation program was determined to be cost and resource-ineffective, Obama wisely turned to private industry to support future space missions, at least to low-Earth orbit. Based on the continued success of companies like Boeing and Space X, it has become more or less clear that this is the future of routine space logistics.
Worst Aspects of Bush Jr.’s and Obama’s Space Policies
The worst aspects of the Bush Jr. policies were his unprecedented emphasis on the use of space for national defense and/or military purposes and the focus on the Moon as a necessary stepping stone for Mars colonization. Regarding the militarization of space, our species ought to have learned by now that peaceful collaboration of nations is the best path forward for a sustainable global society. Any space infrastructure that suggests a continued hostility between countries will lead to a regressive arms race that could threaten the stability of relations among superpowers.
Returning to the Moon could potentially have benefits, but long-term colonization is not among them, as the Moon is far less conducive to habitability than Mars. Our effort should, therefore, be directed at securing a sustained presence on Mars as quickly as possible in the interest of survival.
The worst aspects of the Obama policies were the relegation of the Orion capsule to serving as little more than an ISS taxi and the plan to launch manned missions to an asteroid before venturing to Mars. The Orion capsule was part of the Constellation program and intended to provide NASA with a means of conducting extensive manned missions to other celestial bodies. However, its demotion to simple low-Earth orbit transport was a sad waste of resources and ambition.
As far as the proposal to send humans to an asteroid, this is a fun idea. However, again, Mars should be the first focus for critical survival reasons.
In the next and final part of this article, we’ll look at challenges for the current administration and recommendations for the future.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.