Barack Obama's Letter to Harry Reid & Nancy Pelosi

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Letter to Harry Reid & Nancy Pelosi regarding NASA
by Barack Obama
Sent to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi on 21 September 2008.
Dear Majority Leader Reid and Madam Speaker Pelosi:

This Administration's lack of leadership for our nation's space program has left Americans without access to space or the ability to support its astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) without paying Russia for transportation. The ISS is a world-class research facility, built with approximately $100 billion of U.S. taxpayers' money. With the planned retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010, the U.S. will be paying Russia for rides to and from the ISS, and for emergency lifeboat services, using their Soyuz spacecraft. Furthermore, at the end of 2011, NASA will no longer even have the legal authority to continue paying Russia for Soyuz flights, so unless we act immediately, the U.S. will abandon its role in supporting, and benefiting from, missions to this amazing facility, leaving it to our international partners.

The Bush administration's plan to have astronauts explore beyond low-earth orbit, returning to the Moon and then on to Mars, has never been funded adequately. In order to pay for this program, all other NASA programs have been short-changed ─ from our important earth and space science missions to investment in critical aeronautics programs. The very engine of innovation for our nation, investment in research and technology, has been all but eliminated at NASA. America needs to renew its commitment to NASA and to provide sustained, stable direction with an honest budget and sufficient resources for success across all of its critical missions: Human Spaceflight, Science, and Aeronautics Research.

As Dr. Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator, said recently, "In a rational world, (NASA) would have been allowed to pick a Shuttle retirement date to be consistent with Ares/Orion availability, (NASA) would have been asked to deploy Ares/Orion as early as possible (rather than "not later than 2014") and we would have been provided the necessary budget to make it so" [NASA e-mail, 8/18/08]. Regrettably, the current administration has not behaved rationally and, with the Russian invasion of Georgia, NASA is now left with more limited options, all of them much worse than if the administration and their Republican allies in Congress had thought through the strategic consequences of these decisions five years ago.

Because of this failure of leadership, America is now faced with three less-than-optimal options:

  • Ask Congress to renew the existing waiver for the Iran-North Korea-Syria Non-proliferation Act (INKSNA) and rely on Russia to launch and retrieve our own astronauts on the Space Station between the imminent retirement of the Space Shuttle and the first launch of an operational replacement for the Shuttle.
  • Do nothing and abandon American commitments to the International Space Station between 2012 and 2015, relinquishing our $100 billion dollar investment to the Russians and our other international partners.
  • Increase NASA's funding significantly to extend our use of the Space Shuttle beyond 2010 as partial mitigation for the gap in American access to low-earth orbit and for our dependence on Soyuz, while also providing a smoother transition of NASA's Shuttle workforce, infrastructure, and capabilities to new systems.

Administrator Griffin has initiated an analysis of the third option to determine its feasibility, cost, and schedule implications. The results should be available in the November timeframe so that the President-elect's transition team can prepare appropriate action along with appropriate FY2010 budgeting. NASA's appropriators, however, should be prepared to consider increasing NASA's budget to extend safe Shuttle operations beyond 2010 and to accelerate government and private-sector efforts to provide human access to low-earth orbit. Any effort to extend the Shuttle program must receive adequate funding, ensuring that progress on developing new vehicles is not further delayed by diverting funds to the Shuttle.

In the meantime, while we await the results of NASA's Shuttle study, there are three concrete steps that Congress should take immediately. I urge you to:

  • Extend NASA's waiver of INKSNA so we keep that option open for allowing U.S. astronauts to utilize the ISS beyond 2011.
  • Demand that NASA take no further action that would make it more difficult or expensive to fly the Shuttle beyond 2010.
  • Provide additional funding in FY2009 above that contemplated in the pending appropriations bills to support the single extra Shuttle flight already approved overwhelmingly by both House and Senate authorizers earlier this year.

NASA should be funded appropriately to carry out its important goals. In 1961, President Kennedy inspired America to explore the heavens. He set difficult goals for NASA but, importantly, he and a Democratic Congress provided NASA with the resources necessary for success. And succeed they did. NASA helped America win the Cold War without firing a single shot by dazzling the world with our technological and moral leadership. It is time to dazzle them again.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama
United States Senator