Today marked the final landing of the space shuttle Atlantis. The return of the shuttle and four astronauts on board ends NASA's 30-year shuttle program.
Even though NASA, Congress and the Obama administration are still in the process of negotiating what comes next for U.S. space exploration, Fox News rushed to declare that Obama is "ending manned spaceflight" and misleadingly claimed programs he scuttled showed real promise.
The pile-on began immediately after the triumphant touchdown of the shuttle (emphasis added):
BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): Yeah, I mean, think about what they accomplished, what they've seen. I mean, Nixon comes out in '72 and says, this space shuttle program, I've seen enough potential here, we're going to put into [sic] action. By the time Ronald Reagan takes office, we get used to the shuttle flights, the two major disasters that we all went through, and then the picture person -- picture perfect final landing, which makes you wonder in many respects why we're actually stopping when we don't have another way to get up.
STEVE DOOCY (co-host): And we just heard from the pilot, Doug Hurley, talk about how America will continue to explore, but how and where -- because while George W. Bush had envisioned us going back to the moon and Mars and beyond, this administration has decided to end manned spaceflight. Going forward from now on if we want to ride up to the International Space Station, we're going to have to write a check for $65 million to the country of Russia.
KILMEADE: And have 55 astronauts learn to speak Russian.
The co-hosts repeated similar refrains throughout the broadcast, and then ended the show by inviting former astronaut Jerry Linenger on the air to push a bizarre (and untrue) picture of the current state of affairs at NASA. Linenger claimed that we were "a year away" from "the next generation of spacecraft" and that the discontinued Constellation program was "good enough on track." From Fox & Friends (emphasis added):
KILMEADE: But would JFK have approved of President Obama's current plans for outer space exploration or lack thereof? Joining us right from Traverse City, former NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger. Jerry, thanks for joining us.
It's a day to salute those who brought us the space shuttle. But why are you somewhat disenchanted today?
LINENGER: Oh, very disenchanted because we just canceled our follow-up program, you know, doing hard things, like -- every time I hear that speech, it gives me chills. That's what we should be doing today. We should be number one in the world. And we should be building advanced spacecraft. NASA had a plan. We transitioned the shuttle out. We used that budget to build the next generation spacecraft. It's ready to go. It's about a year away. It can get us to the moon. It can get us to Mars. And instead, we're taking one giant leap backwards, giving part of NASA's budget to five private companies, space tourism companies. And I'm all for them, but I am not for them taking advanced program money in order to build something we built in 1965.
KILMEADE: Does it tear you up when you see JFK talking with all that hope and knowing what we accomplished and seeing where we're at right now?
LINENGER: Where are the leaders? You know? Where are the leaders? Kennedy was bold, and he was exactly right. You got to do hard things. If you don't do hard things, you go backwards. And it challenges us, and the last point that he made, we intend to win. You know, we're not going to be a second rate space-faring nation. We are not going to go to Russia, which we have to do for the next five years, probably?
KILMEADE: Right. But, Jerry --
LINENGER: And say, "Can you please take us to the international space station?"
KILMEADE: It's a travesty, and it's going to cost us a bundle. But Jerry, what about the Constellation program, real quick? Was that feasible to get to Mars and to the moon again? And did they kill a program on track?
LINENGER: It was good enough on track, and NASA made a very tough budgetary decision to say, we are going to phase out shuttle, use that money. And we are about a year away, we've got the prototype ready, and we can go on to Mars, we can use advanced materials, advanced computer systems. And we can keep that work force together. All those years of brain power, life experience -- we're just throwing it away. Five thousand people at Johnson Space Center, 7,000 at Kennedy Space Center, another thousand today when the shuttle lands.
Now, it is certainly true that the end of the shuttle program marks a difficult time for NASA, and, sadly, for thousands of workers in the space industry who will indeed lose their jobs this week. But it is not true that this marks the "end of manned spaceflight" for the U.S.
The shuttle program was ended in order to shift NASA resources toward deep space exploration -- but commercial companies will take over cargo flights to the space station, and experts estimate those flights will be capable of carrying humans in three to 10 years. As a Forbes article explains:
It comes down to money.
NASA is sacrificing the shuttles, according to the program manager, so it can get out of low-Earth orbit and get to points beyond. The first stop under Obama's plan is an asteroid by 2025; next comes Mars in the mid-2030s.
Private companies have been tapped to take over cargo hauls and astronaut rides to the space station, which is expected to carry on for at least another decade. The first commercial supply run is expected late this year, with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launching its own rocket and spacecraft from Cape Canaveral.
None of these private spacecraft, however, will have the hauling capability of NASA's shuttles; their payload bays stretch 60 feet long and 15 feet across, and hoisted megaton observatories like Hubble. Much of the nearly 1 million pounds of space station was carried to orbit by space shuttles.
Astronaut trips by the commercial competitors will take years to achieve.
SpaceX maintains it can get people to the space station within three years of getting the all-clear from NASA. Station managers expect it to be more like five years. Some skeptics say it could be 10 years before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil.
So it's accurate to say that the future of manned spaceflight in the U.S. is uncertain -- but it's certainly not the end.
Linenger's comments are even more baffling. Unless he has access to some top secret info that we do not, there is no rocket or program that is "one year away" from completion. His claim that Constellation, the program started in 2005 under the Bush administration with the goal of returning to the moon, was "good enough on track" is patently untrue. So is Kilmeade's claim that Constellation missions were intended to reach Mars. They were not; part of the reason the program was scrapped was to focus limited resources on deep-space craft that are capable of carrying people to Mars. As The New York Times reported in January, the program was underfunded and behind schedule:
Constellation, started in 2005 under the Bus h administration, aimed to return to the moon by 2020 and set up a base there in the following years. But Constellation never received as much money as originally promised, which slowed work and raised the overall price tag.
When Barack Obama was running for president, he said he supported the moon goal. But after he took office, he did not show much enthusiasm for it. His request for the 2010 fiscal year did not seek immediate cuts in Constellation but trimmed the projected spending in future years.
The administration also set up a blue-ribbon panel, led by Norman Augustine, a former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, to review the program. The panel found that Constellation could not fit into the projected budget -- $100 billion over 10 years -- and would need $45 billion more to get back on track. Extending the space station five years beyond 2015 would add another $14 billion, the group concluded.
Last February, when unveiling the budget request for fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration said it wanted to cancel Constellation, turn to commercial companies for transportation to low-Earth orbit and invest heavily in research and development on technologies for future deep-space missions.
The Obama budget requested more money for NASA -- but for other parts of the agency like robotic science missions and aviation. The proposed allotment for human spaceflight was still at levels that the Augustine committee had said were not workable.
In pushing to cancel Constellation, one Obama administration official after another called it "unexecutable," so expensive that it limped along for years without discernible progress.
"The fact that we poured $9 billion into an unexecutable program really isn't an excuse to pour another $50 billion into it and still not have an executable program," said James Kohlenberger, chief of staff of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, at a news conference last February.
NASA officials, too, admitted that the 2020 target for a moon landing had become unreachable:
At the same news conference, Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator, noted that Constellation, without a budget increase, would not reach the moon until well after the 2020 target. "The Augustine report made it clear that we wouldn't have gotten to beyond low Earth orbit until 2028 and even then would not have the funding to build the lander," she said.
NASA is currently working on a heavy-lift rocket design, though it has already told Congress that "it can't build the rocket and its companion crew capsule by the 2017 deadline with the money -- at least $14 billion over the next five years -- it has been given," according to The Orlando Sentinel.
So are there uncertain times ahead for NASA and for American space travel? Yes. But has President Obama single-handedly ended U.S. manned spaceflight and scrapped a would-be moon mission that was "good enough on track?" No.
Watch the co-hosts' reaction to the landing:
And Kilmeade's interview with Linenger: