In 1950, the U.S. Army relocated its early missile program from Fort Bliss, Texas, to Huntsville. The move would later prove to be much more significant for the U.S. space program than its missile warfare efforts.
Dr. Wernher Von Braun, a German rocket scientist who played an instrumental role in the Nazi’s rocket program during World War II, was among the handful of experts relocated to Alabama. It was Von Braun who in 1950 proclaimed human travel to moon possible.
Von Braun would be the inspiration for President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to have a man on the moon. Kennedy made that proclamation before a joint session of Congress that aired on television 53 years ago this week.
Von Braun’s vision, and then development, of the Saturn rocket program that propelled the Apollo craft to the moon would cement Alabama’s role in the U.S. space program under NASA for years to come.
In recent years, however, the emphasis on space exploration has diminished among lawmakers in Washington. While so much of government has expanded under President Barack Obama, the NASA budget has actually shrank.
In addition to those cuts, the agency, under the leadership of NASA administrator Charles Bolden, has taken on such extracurricular activities as education, climate change science and yes, Islamic outreach.
“When I became the NASA administrator — or before I became the NASA administrator — [Obama] charged me with three things,” Bolden told Al Jazeera in 2010. “One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”
Earlier that year, NASA canceled its Constellation moon exploration program, deviating from the agency’s core mission. The next year the agency ended the space shuttle program. Without a backup plan, the United States became dependent on the Russian government and its space program to get to space at a cost of $70 million per astronaut.
Last week, that arrangement hit brick wall. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced a number of responses to punitive sanctions from the United States for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incursions in the Ukraine, including the nation’s annexation of Crimea.
Rogozin said it would end U.S. future use of the International Space Station after 2020 and will also end an agreement that allowed the United States to use Russian rocket engines to launch military satellites. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama’s 5th Congressional district was quick to respond to that announcement.
“Russia’s increasingly belligerent stance reinforces America’s need to end reliance on Russia for America’s access to space by producing an equivalent or better American-made rocket engine,” Brooks said in a statement. “Congress must consider whether current funding levels are adequate to expedite production of an American-made rocket engine and, if not, Congress and the White House must work together to ensure sufficient funding is found.”
Brooks obviously recognized that if the United States is to distance itself from Russian dependency and then return NASA to the greatness it experienced in the second half of the last century, part of that process would obviously involve Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center and a number of contractors in his Congressional district.
“America once had the world’s preeminent space program,” Brooks added. “Over the past five years, our human space program has fallen into decay, well below what the American people deserve and what America can accomplish. I urge President Obama and Congress to return America’s space program to the exceptional level it once enjoyed. We can do that by reprioritizing and shifting resources and rededicating ourselves to the bipartisan standard of excellence set by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.”
In 2012, NASA had an estimated $2.8 billion impact on Alabama’s economy according to Gene Goldman, then-Acting Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and over 2,300 civil servants.
One would expect that’s a decent enough-sized impact on the state economy for Alabama Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby to make it a top priority. But it could even be a 2016 presidential campaign issue.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recognized NASA could be used a presidential political issue. Perhaps that was a ploy by Gingrich to win over voters of Florida’s Space Coast in the state’s Republican presidential primary, one of the early primaries, in 2012.
Regardless of whether it’s Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul or Marco Rubio — NASA’s future can’t be any worse off than it has been under Obama.
The construction of the International Space Station came under President Bill Clinton and he made gestures about a manned mission to Mars. They may offer us a glimpse into what NASA under Hillary Clinton might look like.
On the Republican side, it would be a no-brainer to run against all the shortcomings of the Obama presidency, making the downsizing of NASA an obvious campaign issue.
In the meantime, look for NASA strongholds like Huntsville, Houston and Cape Canaveral to weather the storm for two more years. But beyond that, forces including commerce and national defense will create a political environment for NASA to be stronger and Alabama will get a piece of that action.