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Obama may militarise NASA to save money

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President-Elect Barack Obama may seek to save money and advance America's space presence by promoting closer cooperation between the US military space programme and NASA, according to reports.

Bloomberg News, in an exclusive report, claims that "Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and NASA... according to people who’ve discussed the idea with the Obama team". However the news service also quotes Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro as saying that “The NASA review team is just asking questions; no decisions have been made".

The problems America faces in space for the coming decade come in two main areas. Firstly, US manned spaceflight is planned to cease with the retirement of the space shuttle fleet next year - though NASA has been required by law to keep open the option of a shuttle extension until President Obama arrives in office.

Under the space agency's current plans, no US astronaut could travel to space in an American ship until the new generation of Ares/Orion rockets and modules are ready, which can't realistically happen any sooner than 2015. Barring a substantial, credit-crunch-flouting budget increase, NASA says that any extension of the shuttle fleet would push back Ares/Orion pretty much year for year - hence the agency is bitterly opposed to any such extension.

The problem with a gap in US manned spaceflight capability is primarily one of image and diplomatic leverage - for at least the first few years after Shuttle retirement, NASA could only get its astronauts to and from the substantially US-funded and operated International Space Station (ISS) aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. While a lack of personnel on the station might not have any very significant real-world impact on America, it would be a huge blow to US prestige. Even a delicately implied threat of such a withdrawal of cooperation by Russia could be hugely troublesome.

Meanwhile, the US military and intelligence community has been seriously rattled by China's successful 2007 satellite-buster test. America's spooks and armed forces are heavily reliant on satellites for global communications, navigation and surveillance. In particular, much of America's ability to spot ballistic missile launches around the globe comes from spy satellites.

A Cold-War era moratorium on active space combat has held fairly well until now from the US point of view: the only major push which could really be viewed as a budding orbital strike force is America's own missile-defence programme. America insists, of course, that it is nothing of the sort - it is merely an unfortunate side-effect that interceptors able to knock down intercontinental ballistic missiles are by their nature also able to hit satellites in low orbit.

Nonetheless, there are many in the Pentagon and the spy services who see China's test as the opening of a new era of struggle for space dominance: and who don't regard China as the only threat, either. With India now able to send a probe to the Moon, and even Iran claiming that it will be able to put payloads into orbit shortly, there will soon be a lot of new players on the orbital game board.

If, like the paranoid empire-builders of the Pentagon, you prefer to be ready for what someone could do with their hardware rather than what they probably will do, this all seems - or can be made to seem - very threatening. A lot of military people and spooks in Washington at the moment will be issuing reports and briefings calling for new space assets - for instance watcher satellites designed to spot attacks on existing US sats, or tactical space scanner systems - and saying effectively "if nothing is done, we can't be held responsible in ten years' time".

Meanwhile, Mr Obama's transition team are expecting to arrive in Washington just as the spending crunch hits - they will have to tackle the NASA astronaut-lift gap and military/spook space panic on a (relatively) shoestring budget.

Hence the hope that the military could collaborate with NASA, perhaps with the goal of man-rating existing Delta or Atlas lift rockets to carry NASA's Orion (or some other astronaut ship, perhaps the privately designed SpaceX Dragon) rather than developing Ares.

On the face of it, the idea could make sense. Nonetheless there will be many opposed to such a plan. It might, after all, achieve the worst of both worlds - the US secret spysat empire and NASA's manned space programme have both suffered budget overruns and embarrassing failures in recent times. Two wrongs don't always make a right. Indeed, the space shuttle itself is often pointed up as an example of failed military/civilian cooperation - designed to be both a reusable space launcher and a cunning system for positioning spy sats in a sneaky way, in the end it didn't really achieve either goal.

Furthermore, the space shuttle came out of the old NASA, an agency arguably much more closely allied with the military. Elements of that culture are still there - many of the astronaut elite, who often go on to senior management positions, still come from the US armed forces - but there are those who'd see a stronger orientation towards peaceful scientific and educational endeavour in the post-Cold War space agency. It's hard to imagine the new breed of "educator astronauts" - chosen from among American schoolteachers - happily assisting in the deployment of secret military space payloads, ones perhaps quasi-illegal under some interpretations of international law. The potential for culture clashes and obstructionism on both sides would surely seem to be greater than of old.

All in all, it looks as if Mr Obama may have his work cut out for him once he takes over - in space as in many another field.

The Bloomberg report can be read here. ®

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