Tuesday night President Obama will give his State of the Union speech before a joint session of Congress. Some have wondered if he might sneak a brief mention of space into the speech because the administration disclosed today that former astronaut Mark Kelly will be at the speech, sitting in the First Lady’s box. Of course, the primary reason why he’ll be there has little to do with his NASA career but instead because of his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, who announced Sunday she would resign from Congress this week in order to devote more time to her post-shooting rehabilitation.
Another reason why it’s unlikely space would get much a mention in the address is that the administration may have something along the lines of space policy fatigue. This week’s issue of The New Yorker features a long article that takes readers behind the scenes of the Obama Administration, based on hundreds of pages of internal memos obtained by the magazine. The article takes a broad look at the administration acted and reacted to various issues, including, as it turns out, space.
The article notes that as a candidate for president in 2008, Obama “had promised a bold space program”, a reference to his space policy white paper the campaign released in August 2008. However, according to the New Yorker article, those plans foundered on projections of growing budget deficits. “Especially in light of our new fiscal context, it is not possible to achieve the inspiring space program goals discussed during the campaign,” a November 2009 memo (authorship unstated) advised the president. That sentence, the article noted, was in bold and underlined for particular emphasis. The result:
Obama was told that he should cancel NASA’s Bush-era Constellation program, along with its support projects, like the Ares launch vehicles, which were designed to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. The program was behind schedule, over budget, and “unachievable.” He agreed to end it. During the stimulus debate, Obama’s metaphorical moon-shot idea—the smart grid—was struck down as unworkable. Now the Administration’s actual moon-shot program was dead, too.
Later, the article notes the president received a letter dated February 2, 2010—one day after the release of the 2011 budget proposal that announced plans to cancel Constellation, as Obama was advised the previous November—from a Virginia woman whose husband was working on the program. “I voted for you. I supported you. But I am very disappointed in you. You are not the President I thought you were going to be,” the woman, identified only as “Ginger”, wrote, after criticizing the president for cancelling Constellation while continuing to fund wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama’s response to his staff: “can I get a sense of how Ares fit in with our long term NASA strategy to effectively respond”. A few days later he got that information and then instructed an aide to “Draft a short letter for Ginger, answering her primary concern—her husband’s career—for me to send.” What the president was told, and how he decided to respond, aren’t disclosed.