Space in transition: How Obama's White House charted a new course for NASA
In 2009 and 2010, the Obama administration orchestrated a major shift for NASA’s human spaceflight program
With a sharp blast followed by a dull roar, the first Ares rocket lifted off on a test flight from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It was October 28, 2009. The skinny, candlestick launcher was part of NASA's Constellation program, created in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia accident to fulfill George W. Bush's goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020.
In part two of our Horizon Goal series on the past, present and future of NASA's human spaceflight program, we learned how Constellation fell behind schedule and began gobbling up an increasingly large share of the agency's budget.
Meanwhile, the space shuttles were on the verge of retirement. The U.S. was about to lose domestic access to the International Space Station, which was scheduled to be abandoned in 2016.
Would newly elected President Obama change course?
Two minutes into Ares' test flight, the bottom half of the rocket—a modified shuttle booster—finished burning. It separated from the empty top half, which was laden with weight to simulate an upper stage and an Orion spacecraft that would one day carry humans.
As planned, both sections began tumbling. Due to the angle of NASA's tracking cameras, it briefly appeared as if the booster and upper stage had smacked into one another, creating a cringeworthy scene.
Minutes later, the booster, which was designed to be recovered at sea, deployed three parachutes. One chute deflated, and the second only opened partially. The booster smacked into the Atlantic at high speed and buckled.
It was an ominous sign for Constellation. The program's fate now rested in the hands of just a few decision makers at the highest levels of government.
NASA’s Ares I-X rocket launches on a test flight from Kennedy Space Center in October 2009.
President Obama's decision on what to do about the nation's space program began nearly a year earlier with his NASA transition team, following the November 2008 election.
"The advice given to the transition team was, 'Before you embrace Constellation as your own, you should take a look at it,'" said John Logsdon, a space historian and professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. (Full disclosure: Logsdon is a Planetary Society board member.)
The team was led by Lori Garver, who began her public policy career working for space-hero-turned-Senator John Glenn, and logged a stint at NASA headquarters during the Bill Clinton administration. During the 2008 election, she advised Hillary Clinton on space policy before Barack Obama became the democratic presidential nominee.
According to Garver, the Obama administration favored funneling more dollars into science and technology development—areas where established corporations have less incentive to spend their own money. That, in turn, could spur innovation and economic growth.
Garver was also in favor of expanding NASA's commercial spaceflight program, which was already providing seed money to smaller, private companies building more cost-effective rockets and spacecraft.
It was a departure from NASA's traditional model of paying large aerospace companies like Boeing and Lockheed to build the agency its own fleet of vehicles. Garver told me that was a win for everyone—even the industry players that would initially lose contracts.
"I would never say that we want to cut out the aerospace industry," she said. "We want to improve the aerospace industry and make it more competitive, just as Apple and Microsoft made IBM better and more competitive."
If Obama and his transition team were going to architect a major change for NASA's human spaceflight program, they would need two things: the backing of a nonpartisan review panel, and a new NASA administrator.
Finding the latter would prove more difficult than anticipated.
The senator and the future administrator
The crew of space shuttle Columbia poses for an in-flight portrait in January 1986. Florida Senator Bill Nelson, rear center, became friends with Charles Bolden, rear right, who was also a spaceflight rookie at the time.
Finding a new boss
As a matter of course, NASA administrator Michael Griffin, a George W. Bush appointee, resigned the day President Obama took office in January 2009.
One of Griffin's proposed successors was Scott Gration, an Air Force Major General who grew up with missionary parents in Congo and Kenya. In 2006, Gration accompanied then-Senator Obama on a diplomatic tour of Africa. Although Gration was a Republican at the time, he was impressed with the up-and-coming Senator, and later joined his campaign to work on space policy.
Gration is now the former U.S. ambassador to Kenya. Speaking with me from there, he said he was vetted for the NASA administrator position shortly after Obama took office, and began meeting with agency officials, members of Congress, and former astronauts like John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin.
But when Gration's name was floated publicly, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who chaired the Senate committee responsible for approving the White House's selection, objected.
Nelson's preference was Charles Bolden, a retired Marine Corps general and former astronaut. In 1986, during NASA's short-lived flirtation with giving politicians rides to space, Nelson flew aboard space shuttle Columbia with Bolden, who was also a spaceflight rookie.
Multiple sources for this story—speaking on the condition of anonymity—said some Columbia crewmembers disliked Nelson because the Senator favored photo opportunities over training.
In any case, Nelson definitely got along with one crewmember in particular: the ever-charismatic Bolden.
The White House, not willing to spend limited political capital tussling over a relatively minor appointee, ultimately deferred to Nelson—but only after proposing several more candidates that were nixed for various reasons.
Gration was told he was deemed ineligible because federal law mandates a NASA administrator "shall be appointed from civilian life," meaning no active military officers.
But Congress can override this rule, and did so with George H. W. Bush's administrator pick, Richard Truly, in 1989. Bolden, a retired Marine, drew the Department of Justice's scrutiny before he was declared eligible for the position.
Gration has no hard feelings about what happened. But he did say "it was interesting that Charlie was a former military guy."
NASA / Bill Ingalls
Lori Garver and Charles Bolden speak to members of Congress during their 2009 confirmation hearings.
An 'unsustainable trajectory'
Bolden wasn't officially nominated as NASA administrator until May 2009. Lori Garver was chosen as his deputy, and the duo were finally confirmed by the Senate in mid-July.
An independent panel evaluating Constellation would be more politically palatable if it were appointed by the new NASA administrator.
But NASA's next annual budget—which is released according to the federal government's schedule—was due on February 1, 2010. If the Obama administration wanted to orchestrate a change by then, time was running out.
In May, just before Bolden and Garver's nomination, the White House decided it could wait no longer, and commissioned the Review of United States Human Spaceflight Plans committee, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. Augustine had a long, distinguished history of serving on similar advisory panels under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
After three months of meetings, investigations and visits to NASA centers, the committee released a draft report in September 2009. The final report was issued in October, just days before the awkward Ares test flight.
"The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory," said the opening line. "It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources."
The committee concluded that under NASA's current budget, neither Constellation nor an alternative program would get astronauts to the moon until well into the 2030s—if ever.
It would take an increase of $3 billion per year to open up the agency's options, the report said.
With such a funding increase, Constellation as currently designed could reach the moon in the mid-2020s. The program could also be revamped in a number of different ways, all of which still required some type of heavy lift rocket to heave massive amounts of payload into orbit.
The report also endorsed extending the life of the ISS to 2020, as opposed to 2016, and using commercial crew providers as a taxi service.
An overhauled, cash-infused Constellation program could also skip lunar landings in favor of what the Augustine committee called the "flexible path"—missions to lunar orbit, near-Earth asteroids, gravitationally stable spots called La Grange points, and the moons of Mars. All of those destinations were deemed reachable in the mid-to-late 2020s, and would lay the groundwork for eventual trips to Mars, which the committee felt stood "prominently above all other opportunities for exploration."
At the highest level
Armed with the Augustine Committee's recommendations, the White House moved forward on changing NASA's direction.
But there were now just three-and-a-half months before the budget was due. The administration had to move quickly.
And because a large-scale change was bound to be controversial with involved NASA centers, members of Congress representing space districts, and the aerospace industry, the deliberative process was tightly held within the highest levels of the executive branch.
On a Saturday in mid-November 2009, Bolden sat down with the head of the Office of Management and Budget, which produces the government's entire budget. In December, he met with the president himself.
Jim Kohlenberger, who led the administration's National Science Foundation transition team before becoming chief of staff for the White House Office of Science and Technology, said this was an indication of how high NASA was on the president's radar.
"Other cabinet agencies didn't have that opportunity," he told me. "We brought the NASA administrator in to meet with the president in the Oval Office to talk about priorities. So there was a lot of engagement at that level."
In January, White House logs show both Bolden and Garver met with Office of Science and Technology Policy head John Holdren several times, including on January 29—three days before the NASA budget came out.
But beyond the Obama administration and NASA's top political appointees, hardly anyone else knew what the budget would contain.
Doug Cooke was NASA's associate administrator for human spaceflight exploration programs, one of the highest non-political positions in the agency. He didn't find out what was in the budget until Wednesday, January 27, when the Orlando Sentinel published a story with a bombshell headline: "Obama aims to ax moon mission."
This meant the people responsible for NASA's day-to-day operations were not going to be well-positioned to defend the administration's changes—assuming they even wanted to.
"I found out pretty late," Cooke told me with a slight laugh. "It was held pretty close."
Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls
Sunset on the shuttle program
Space shuttle Atlantis sits on the launch pad prior to launch in November 2009. The twilight photo was used on the cover of NASA’s fiscal year 2011 budget as a nod to the final days of the shuttle program.
All zeros for Constellation
NASA's new budget was released on February 1, 2010. The cover contained a photograph of space shuttle Atlantis in front of a red-orange, twilight sky. The sun was setting on the shuttle program.
On page two, the five-year budget projection for Constellation showed all zeros. Orion and the Ares rockets were gone. America would no longer be attempting to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.
Constellation had been cancelled.
Instead, NASA would shift its human spaceflight dollars to a new research and development program. The agency would focus on advanced technologies that could make future deep space exploration cheaper and more sustainable: new heavy lift engines, advanced in-space propulsion, orbital fuel depots, in-situ resource harvesting on the moon and Mars, improved life support systems, and more.
The ISS was extended to 2020. NASA would go all-in on commercial spaceflight, pouring extra money into companies like SpaceX to get American astronauts flying to the station as soon as possible.
The plan reflected President Obama's desire to refocus the country's science and technology priorities on innovative future technologies. As a result, the pause button had to be pressed on sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit.
There was just one problem: Most of Congress, NASA and the aerospace industry hadn't had a chance to weigh in on the plan.
And as we'll see in part four of this series, that would prove to be a big problem.