President Obama’s announcement last April of plans to trash the Bush administration’s plans to return to the moon by 2020 in favor of planning for missions that might not take place until decades from now went largely without notice. That proposal was modified slightly by Congress to preserve a heavy-lift rocket. Although it is billed as something that will preserve manned space flight, as Robert Zubrin wrote in COMMENTARY last June (behind our pay wall), “it will be useful only as a lifeboat for bringing astronauts down from the space station, not as a craft capable of providing a ride up to orbit.” With the space shuttle being phased out by NASA, as Zubrin warned, “what this means is that the only way Americans will be able to reach even low Earth orbit will be as passengers on Russian launchers.”
But rather than worrying about why the government was scrapping practical manned flight plans in favor of building a largely useless rocket, it appears that Congress is mainly worried about the possibility that NASA might seek to preserve its options or even find a less expensive or more effective rocket. As the New York Times reported, at a Senate hearing held on Wednesday, senators of both parties berated NASA administrators about the agency’s perceived reluctance to follow this foolish course and warned them that any foot dragging about building the rocket would not be tolerated. In particular, “Congressional members from Utah, where Alliant builds the solid rocket motors, have also expressed worries that NASA is looking for a way around the law.” That is to say, they are upset about the possibility that a way will be found to stop this boondoggle. For most members of the House and the Senate, NASA-related projects are simply government jobs programs and nothing else.
We’ve come a long way since a bipartisan congressional consensus paved the way for Americans to land on the moon. Political logrolling has always played a role in the space program (Lyndon Johnson’s influence ensured that the program would shift from Florida to Texas in the 1960s), but Obama has essentially deep-sixed any chances for a return to manned flight in the foreseeable future. It’s a shame that the only interest that anyone in Congress seems to have in what was once America’s most innovative and glorious enterprise is merely a matter of patronage.