Yesterday’s successful landing of Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center marked the end of the 30-year space shuttle program and the beginning of a period of some uncertainty for NASA’s human spaceflight program. That milestone would appear to be another opportunity for critics of the Obama Administration’s space policy in Congress and elsewhere to voice their concerns and complaints. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, most instead used the opportunity to praise the agency and the thousands of people who worked on the shuttle program.
Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL), whose district includes KSC, noted with “great sadness” the final shuttle landing, but also said it was a time to look forward, adding she was “elated” when a Florida organization was selected last week to manage research on the ISS. In a neighboring district, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) called yesterday a “historic, but bittersweet day”, using his statement to laud the program and those who worked on it. Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), whose district includes the Johnson Space Center, recognized those who worked on the shuttle program while adding that America “will need your expertise and skills to take us to the next level of human space exploration.” Another Houston-area member, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), acknowledged the “uncertain future of the program” but said that “Houston is destined to build on its legacy of exploration and discovery.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said “Texans should take pride” in their work on the shuttle program; in a longer op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, he does express concern about the NASA and the administration’s slow movement on the Space Launch System, but adds, “Leveraging the potential of the private sector will be a key to closing the new space gap between America and our international rivals.”
Some, were a bit more critical of the administration’s policy. George LeMieux, who spent a year and a half in the Senate serving out the remainder of Mel Martinez’s term and is now seeking the Republican nomination to run against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), came out against Nelson and the administration Thursday in a speech in Lakeland, Florida, saying he would push for “greater direction and greater emphasis” on space if he returns to the Senate. “There was a mood among my colleagues when I was in the Senate, to do more. I am certain there is wasteful spending where the money could go to the space program instead. Sen. Nelson should have held the president accountable (for continuing a strong space program),” he said, according to a report by the Lakeland Ledger. LeMieux previously claimed that Sen. Nelson “allows 23,000 space jobs to die”.
LeMieux’s comments, though, were mild compared to those made by Texas governor Rick Perry. In a press release from his office, he came out swinging against the White House. “The Obama Administration continues to lead federal agencies and programs astray, this time forcing NASA away from its original purpose of space exploration, and ignoring its groundbreaking past and enormous future potential,” he stated, not mentioning exactly how the administration was redirecting NASA. “Unfortunately, with the final landing of the Shuttle Atlantis and no indication of plans for future missions, this administration has set a significantly different milestone by shutting down our nation’s legacy of leadership in human spaceflight and exploration, leaving American astronauts with no alternative but to hitchhike into space.” Perry doesn’t note that this need to “hitchhike” can be traced back to the original Vision for Space Exploration by President George W. Bush, which directed the shuttle’s retirement by 2010 and a successor vehicle by 2014; the gap was a major issue long before the current administration took office. Perry’s comments carry particular import because, in addition to being governor of a state with a significant NASA presence, he is reportedly considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
The end of the shuttle program and the expected losses of thousands of jobs came up at Thursday’s White House press briefing. The administration’s NASA policy, press secretary Jay Carney said in response to a question, “means more jobs for the country, more American astronauts in space over the next decade and more investments in innovation relative to the prior administration’s plan,” adding on more than one occasion that this policy has “bipartisan support” in Congress. The president, Carney added, “looks forward to NASA’s future and moving forward with space exploration in the future” and has “tremendous regard for the program and for all the folks at NASA who participated in making it such a tremendous success.”
In an interview Thursday with Bloomberg TV, NASA administrator Charles Bolden also acknowledged the Bush Administration’s space policy. “I really applaud the Bush Administration for the decision to migrate from shuttle, phase it out in an orderly fashion, which is what we just completed today,” he said about five minutes into the interview. “If I had a criticism of them, and the Congress, it would be that together they did not adequately fund the space program to be able to bring about a viable exploration program for beyond low Earth orbit and certainly did almost nothing to help us facilitate the success of commercial entities. That’s an area where President Obama has stepped forward, where no one did that since the beginning of NASA.”