The President came to town this week.  That’s a pretty big deal.  Whether you support his policies or not, it’s not often that we get to have the leader of the free world in our own backyard.  He was here to lay out his vision for the future of space exploration in America.  That’s another pretty big deal…especially since we are the Space Coast.

While I am not directly involved in the wondrous work that takes place just a few miles from my front door that puts astronauts and satellites into space, I am very concerned.  Many of my friends, family members and clients earn their living by doing this work.  As a long-time resident of Brevard County and a property owner, I am concerned for our future.  I’m worried that people I know and care for will soon lose their jobs and may have to leave our area.  I’m afraid that our property values, which have fallen dramatically over the last few years, will take yet another major hit.

It’s frustrating to me that in today’s political environment, the reaction to the President’s plan seems to be, like everything else, determined by which side of the political fence you fall on.  While trying to learn more about what the plan may actually mean to our area, I mostly learned that Democrats think the plan is a positive step for our country.  Republicans think it’s a terrible idea.  So, what follows is a layman’s interpretation of what I heard the President say in his brief visit.

The Good

The President’s plan called for an extended life for the International Space Station.  Under President Bush’s plan, the U.S. was scheduled to start withdrawing from the ISS this year.  The new plan extends the life of the station to 2020, or later.  I believe that after the billions of dollars spent, and the international cooperation that has occurred, we should stay involved.

The plan also called for a revival of the program to build the Orion crew capsule.  Originally part of Project Constellation (along with Ares I and Ares V), which was going to get us back to the moon, Orion was completely withdrawn from the first version of the President’s budget proposal in February.  Although we won’t see the two Ares vehicles, at least Orion is back in the picture…albeit a downsized version.  It is expected to create anywhere from 400 to 1000 jobs…right here at KSC.

The Space Coast would remain the Space Coast.  The President’s plan makes Kennedy Space Center the program headquarters for the $6 billion Commercial Crew Development program.  I think this provision provides a two-fer benefit.  First, our area would benefit from the jobs needed to create a viable commercial space program.  And two, I believe that in the long-term, it will be better for private industry to provide the transportation systems needed for future space exploration.

We could become the “Silicon Valley of Space.”  Instead of just providing launch services, the plan broadens KSC’s role into research and development.  This will hopefully lead to the creation of new and better jobs.

The Bad

The time frame of the plan leaves a lot to be desired.  While calling for the development of a heavy-lift rocket, there will be no decision on design until 2015.  Also, I was a bit surprised to learn that our next stop in space may be an asteroid.  After that, Mars.  But the plan is to reach the asteroid in the 2020s and we won’t get to Mars until the 2030s.

As usual, politics muddy up the picture.  Even if President Obama serves a second term, the decision on the heavy-lift rocket will not come until near the end of his administration.  And we certainly know that things can, and I’m sure will, change between now and then.

I know that unfulfilled campaign promises probably don’t surprise anyone any longer, but the President doesn’t seem to be living up to the ones he made while visiting our area prior to his election.  He said that “we cannot cede our leadership in space.”  He derided the previous administration for not giving NASA the support it needed to reach its stated goals and said that by not providing the support “that after the Space Shuttle shuts down in 2010, we’re going to have to rely on Russian spacecraft to keep us in orbit.”  Additionally, he offered to extend the shuttle program, speed up the development of its successor, and make sure that our space industry workers would not lose their jobs because “we cannot afford to lose their expertise.”  It appears that those statements may have won votes, but will fall into the category of unfulfilled promises.

The Ugly

The most obvious is that we did not get the extension of the shuttle program that we were all hoping for.  After three more missions, the program that has done so much over the last 30 years will come to a halt.  That means that at least 8000 space shuttle workers will be in danger of losing their jobs.  That’s ugly.

It’s true that the plan calls for a $40 million initiative, led by the White House and several other agencies, to develop a plan for “regional economic growth and job creation.”  Call me a skeptic, but with the bureaucracy of many different agencies involved, I’m not sure $40 million will have much positive impact for our workers.  And the worst part is that the President asked for the plan to be on his desk by August 15th.  That doesn’t leave us much time or wiggle room.  The last shuttle launch is scheduled for September 16th.

And finally, this is just the President’s plan.  Congress has control of the purse strings.  What finally materializes after it goes through the legislative process could, and probably will, look a lot different than what the President proposed to us.

But…could that be a good thing?