The transfer of the space shuttle Discovery to the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport outside Washington this week, complete with a flyover of the DC area, triggered a number of reactions, including some editorials critical of space policy and the current state of the nation’s space program. For example, in an op-ed published by The Hill, Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the former chairman (and current vice-chairman) of the House Science Committee, criticized the “poor planning” that he blamed for “the crown jewel of NASA’s human spaceflight history, the Space Shuttle, being relegated to museums.” Sensenbrenner’s criticism, though, was not particularly partisan: after noting the Obama Administration’s cancellation of Constellation, he devoted more attention to why NASA should be “retooled” and that it should “clean up its problems” (Sensenbrenner has been a vocal critic in the past of NASA programs that have gone over budget, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.) “America’s role in space exploration is far from dead,” he concluded. “In fact, it’s possible its best years are yet to come.
Sensenbrenner’s criticism, though, was mild compared to what Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in a widely-syndicated piece on Friday. Krauthammer likened the arrival of Discovery at the museum to a funeral for America’s space program. “The pity is not Discovery’s retirement — beautiful as it was, the shuttle proved too expensive and risky to operate — but that it died without a successor,” he writes. But what about the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and NASA’s plans to use them for a human asteroid mission by 2025? He’s skeptical they’ll survive budgets: “Considering that Constellation did not last even five years between birth and cancellation, don’t hold your breath for the asteroid landing.” He also doubts the ability for commercial providers to transport crews to and from the ISS. Cargo, he says, is reasonable for commercial providers, but “manned flight is infinitely more complex and risky”.
While other commentary about the shuttle and space policy largely went unnoticed, Krauthammer’s funereal tone generated a rebuke from the administration. In a blog post late Friday on the White House website, NASA administrator Charles Bolden and Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren argued that “nothing could be further from the truth” about that characterization. They then pick apart his arguments, mincing few words in the process. For example, when Krauthammer claimed that China landing people on the Moon by 2025 would demonstrate it was overtaking the US in space, they wrote, “How absurd!” They also complain later that Krauthammer “carps” about the Obama Administration canceling Constellation when the program was behind schedule and over budget.
The post by Bolden and Holdren is the second time in recent weeks that the administration has responded via the web to what it considers to be unfair criticism of the agency’s efforts. After an April 1 segment on “60 Minutes” about the aftermath of the retirement of the shuttle program on the shuttle’s workforce that generated some political reaction, Bolden responded in a blog post on the NASA website, saying the CBS newsmagazine “missed an awful lot of important context” about the shuttle’s retirement. It suggests that the administration is perhaps a little sensitive to criticism of this era of transition for human spaceflight, particularly in an election year.