Friday, May 8, 2009

What we think: Stop delaying on space

Orlando Sentinel Editorial, May 7: It's a critical time for the U.S. space program. The shuttle is scheduled to stop flying as soon as next year. NASA has started whacking jobs, and layoffs on Florida's Space Coast could reach 10,000. The United States is facing a gap of five years or more in sending astronauts into orbit, and problems plaguing NASA's next manned program mean a longer delay. Yet there's a maddening lack of urgency, and interest, among federal and state policy-makers.

After months of inaction, the Obama administration was expected this week to announce a review of the next manned program, Constellation. The review would include an examination of whether the Ares I rocket is the best design for Constellation.

This is long overdue. Serious doubts about Ares have been raging for more than a year. But former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who helped design the rocket, deflected the questions and insisted the problems were not unusual or unmanageable. But Mr. Obama's NASA transition team started asking pointed questions about Ares in December, and Mr. Griffin resigned in January.

Now that a review finally is coming, it needs to be thorough but quick. NASA can't afford to keep plowing money and time into Ares if it's going to get dumped in favor of another launcher.

But the review leaves a more important piece of unfinished business for the Obama administration: naming a new chief for the space agency. The president has said NASA is "adrift." What agency wouldn't be without a permanent leader in charge?

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who says he has the president's ear on space policy, has resorted to publicly pleading for him to name a new administrator. With so much at stake for NASA and the nation, the delay from the White House is confounding.

Mr. Nelson had one bit of good news to report this week from the president. Mr. Obama told him he will complete all the shuttle missions that have been planned, even if delays push them past the program's scheduled retirement date in 2010.

The gridlock isn't just in Washington. Lawmakers in Tallahassee also act as if space policy isn't a priority. Legislators didn't pass even one of several space-related proposals during this year's regular session. And they let a turf battle between two universities doom a bipartisan bid to create a space-research institute.

Legislators also didn't commit any new money to help Florida keep up with the competition from other states for commercial space ventures, which would help offset the economic damage from losing the shuttle program. Their reluctance stemmed in part from an understandable lack of confidence in Space Florida, the agency charged with growing the industry in the state. It has few real accomplishments to show for the millions in taxpayer dollars it has received.

But the better approach from legislators would have been to extract a guarantee of reform at Space Florida in return for any additional money. Instead, they accepted assurances from Gov. Charlie Crist's administration that "improvements" would be made at the agency over the summer.

That's cold comfort, what with a lightweight like Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp serving as Mr. Crist's right-hand man on space policy.

America's pre-eminence in space, billions of dollars in investment in science and technology, and thousands of jobs all hinge on decisions made by federal and state policy-makers. That's more than enough to demand more urgency.

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