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Obama’s NASA made strides on commercial space, but stumbled on exploration

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How the past eight years have shaped NASA

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, carrying supplies to the International Space Station.
NASA

Under the Obama administration, NASA has had a dynamic eight years. The Mars Curiosity rover landed, intact, on the surface of the Red Planet, and the Kepler mission launched to find planets outside our Solar System. NASA’s Juno spacecraft put itself into orbit around Jupiter, while the New Horizons mission flew by Pluto, marking the first time the tiny world had ever been explored. All the while, the space agency has maintained a steady human presence in lower Earth orbit, and plans to extend operations of the International Space Station until 2024.

Many of those major events had been set in motion before Obama took office, though. Still the outgoing president has left a substantial footprint on the space agency over the past eight years. In the space community, Obama will undoubtedly be heralded for focusing on stronger partnerships with the private sector. And Obama has made a big commitment to NASA’s Earth Science programs, as well as the agency’s investments in technology development.

But not all of Obama’s decisions for NASA have been met with praise. The Space Shuttle program ended during his administration, and the US has had no way of sending people to space without cooperation from Russia. And NASA has gone through a pivotal transformation in recent years, as a result of Obama. The president shifted NASA’s focus from a return to the Moon to a human mission to Mars.

It’s still unclear which of these changes will survive in the years ahead. During the presidential campaign, advisors to President-elect Trump expressed praise for the focus on public-private partnerships in space. However, those same advisors hinted that all of Obama’s efforts in strengthening NASA’s Earth Science division may be undone, and that all of the space agency’s climate missions may be transferred to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Trump’s advisors also believe deep space human exploration should be a big focus for NASA, but as for the space agency’s next destination — the Moon or Mars — it’s still anyone’s guess. If a lunar-loving Congress gets its way, however, the Moon may be back on the table again soon.

The Good

Emphasis on commercial

During Obama’s administration, NASA has experimented with a more hands-off approach to procuring spacecraft and services from the private sector. It’s a new way of doing business in which NASA asks the commercial space industry for a type of service and then gives a contract to a company, or companies, to perform that service. For example, NASA established the Commercial Cargo Program in 2005 and sought companies that could launch cargo periodically to the International Space Station. After asking for proposals, the space agency awarded contracts to Orbital ATK and SpaceX in 2008 to do just that.

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft, attached to the space station’s Canadian robotic arm.
NASA

NASA has always relied on commercial contractors to construct the agency’s spacecraft, though. The Space Shuttles, for instance, were built by North American Rockwell, which is now Boeing, and the large external tanks were built by Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin. However, NASA engineers were instrumental in the design and construction of those vehicles, and NASA technically owned the spacecraft once they were complete.

With this new model, private companies are performing a service for NASA, but the agency isn’t as involved in the design process and doesn’t own the companies’ vehicles. “It’s an innovative form of government contracting that gives the contractor more freedom,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, tells The Verge. It’s a type of business model that serves two purposes. First, NASA gets a service that it needs at a potentially lower cost, and second, a company gets money to develop a capability — such as getting to orbit — that it can use to create a profit later on. SpaceX is now a major launcher of satellites thanks, in part, to help from NASA.

The idea of using this model originated with the Bush administration, but under Obama, this new way of engaging the private sector became a focus for NASA. The space agency doubled down on the idea and escalated the Commercial Crew Program, an initiative similar to the Commercial Cargo Program that tasks companies with transporting NASA astronauts to and from the ISS. Now, SpaceX and Boeing are developing vehicles to do just that, and will carry astronauts into space as early as 2018. “We will get a lot of deserved credit for having turned the ship toward a recognition that there were parts of the government funded space program that could be more efficiently carried out by the private sector,” Lori Garver, the leader of Obama’s NASA transition team and former deputy administrator for NASA, tells The Verge.

Earth Science and technology

At the onset of the Obama administration, one of the biggest goals was putting more money into the agency’s Earth Science endeavors. There was a noticeably larger emphasis on satellite missions aimed at studying the Earth’s climate. “It’s a direction I got from the administration: to use space for those things that were not just for space,” says Garver. “You’ve got a real goal to study the atmosphere and the effects on the planet. So we increased our sciences significantly.”

That agenda is clearest in the Earth Science division’s funding. The annual budget for NASA Earth Science has increased from $1.2 billion in 2007 to $1.9 billion in 2016, despite resistance from a conservative Congress. And multiple new Earth Science missions have been launched in recent years, including the recent CYGNSS mission designed to better understand ocean wind speeds and predict hurricanes.

One of the recently launched CYGNSS spacecraft.
NASA

Another priority for the Obama administration was the emphasis on technology research and development, Garver says. As a result, NASA established the Space Technology Mission Directorate, which was granted an annual budget of $687 million for 2016. The space agency also formulated the Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan, an effort to guide the space agency’s investments over recent years. “[That investment] really dwindled to almost nothing and a big focus of [Obama’s], personally, was he’s a believer in innovation and technology — your ability to make a healthier investment in the public and the world,” Garver says.

The Bad

Transition from the Moon to Mars

Obama’s NASA will certainly be characterized by a gap in America’s access to space. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 — something that was set in motion under the Bush administration — the US no longer had a way to bring its astronauts to space using an American vehicle. “I did ask everyone about whether or not there would be a way to turn that around if you had to,” says Garver. “Everyone had said no. The supply chains had been cut off. So we spent a good part of the first term trying to push back against the general public view that the space program is over and ended with the Shuttle.”

Before the Shuttle’s retirement, however, NASA was working on something new: a plan to return to the Moon by 2020 called the Constellation program. It called for the construction of two new rockets, the Ares I and the Ares V. The Ares I would take people into Earth orbit in a crew capsule, while the Ares V would carry up supplies and a lander needed to get the astronauts to the surface of the Moon. However, there were concerns about Constellation’s budget, and after an executive review of NASA’s future spaceflight options known as the Augustine Commission, Obama canceled Constellation altogether.

Obama makes a speech in 2010 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, outlining his goals for the space agency.
NASA

Obama also dashed any hopes of returning to the Moon during his administration. In a 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center, the president declared that NASA shouldn’t return to the Moon. “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before,” Obama said during the speech. “Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.” Instead of a lunar return, Obama said NASA should focus on sending people to an asteroid, and then set its sights on a human mission to Mars. The speech effectively killed any ideas for a crewed Moon mission and led to the creation of the now famous “Journey to Mars” — the agency’s goal to send people to the Red Planet in the mid-2030s

“The cancellation of Constellation — a lot view that as positive, some as negative,” says Garver. “And some say we didn’t actually do it.”

That’s because much of the Constellation program was eventually salvaged for the Journey to Mars. Obama had called for NASA to design a new large rocket by 2015, but certain members of Congress feared that engineers in their districts would lose out on jobs in the meantime. So Congress stepped in and mandated that the space agency start working on a heavy lift vehicle known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, the design of which is heavily derived from the Ares V. NASA has been working on the SLS ever since, but that program has been plagued by budget concerns.

Meanwhile, the shift to a “Mars first” plan for human spaceflight has not been received well by some within NASA and Congress; many people still hope to go to the Moon before the Red Planet. “They dropped the Moon aspect as something that was what the Bush administration was doing,” says Pace. “It was a very political decision, and so the Mars and asteroids come forward as being new or different.” The Journey to Mars has also been frequently criticized for lacking a definitive timeline, and the effort will likely need a substantial amount of money — much more than NASA will conceivably receive.

What didn’t happen

Many of NASA’s human spaceflight endeavors serve less of a scientific purpose and more of a geopolitical one. The most obvious example of that is the Apollo missions, a demonstration of strength against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. More recently, the International Space Station was developed as global cooperative effort and allowed an opportunity to engage with Russia in a positive way.

But Pace argues that Obama’s NASA has been marked by a deterioration in international relations. “One of the mistakes the Obama administration made is they misunderstood the role of space leadership. In the past it was about ‘Look what I can do by myself.’ Today in a more globalized environment, leadership is about who you can get to come work with you.” A prime example of this misstep is NASA backing out of the ExoMars mission in 2013. Originally, the space agency was supposed to provide a launch vehicle for the mission, which was a joint effort with the European Space Agency to look for life on Mars. Citing budget constraints, NASA said it could no longer provide a vehicle for the mission, forcing ESA to turn to the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos, for help.

And the Journey to Mars didn’t help with matters either. The other major space agencies — ESA, Roscosmos, and the China National Space Administration — all want to go to the Moon, and no one was really interested in a Mars mission other than NASA. “The journey to Mars is so ambitious, other countries couldn’t participate realistically in it,” says Pace.

NASA’s infographic for the Journey to Mars.
NASA

Meanwhile, NASA has also lost opportunities to create new missions. Very few new projects have been approved in the last eight years, perhaps a result of budget constraints. NASA announced the new Mars 2020 rover in 2012, while a future mission to Europa finally got White House approval in 2015. And just recently, the space agency approved two new missions to explore asteroids. But there are no other big flagship planetary missions in the works. “The overall general trend was running off of investments made in previous years,” says Pace. “There’s really been a thinning out of the number of missions in the pipeline, which will have an effect on the community moving forward.”

It’s because of this lack of momentum that Obama’s legacy for NASA is often characterized by one of “marking time.” The administration made impressive strides in the areas of commercial space and Earth Science, but there are many areas of NASA that were either unexplored or handled improperly. Ultimately it’s unclear if the good outweighs the bad. “It’s been a bit of holding pattern,” John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University, tells The Verge. “There’s not been major progress, but there hasn’t been major steps backwards. Mr. Obama came to office hoping to change that, he and the people around him, and it turned out to be politically harder than he anticipated.”