OFFBEAT: Obama, outer space and Erie County's future

Barack Obama must be a pretty busy guy these days. He's trying to figure out how to revive the economy, and keep the
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010


Barack Obama must be a pretty busy guy these days.

He's trying to figure out how to revive the economy, and keep the U.S. (and the world) from tumbling into a new Depression.

He has to try to bring the war in Iraq to an end, figure out a way to prevent the war in Afghanistan from turning into an endless quagmire, find Osama bin Laden and deal with the threats of terrorist attacks in the U.S.

He's also promised to revamp health care in the U.S.

It's a pretty hefty to-do list.

But there's one more thing the new president has to figure out, and it's something that could have a major impact on Erie County. He has to decide what to do about the U.S. manned space program.

NASA Plum Brook Station has begun its biggest uptick of activity since the boom days of the Apollo missions to the Moon. In 1973, after the Apollo missions ended, part of Plum Brook, such as the nuclear reactor, was shut down.

The space agency plans to spend lots of money on Plum Brook over next few years, upgrading it so that it will be better prepared to test equipment for Constellation, NASA's project to return astronauts to the Moon (and perhaps send them on to Mars.) NASA already has been carrying out a $51.4 million upgrade of the Space Power Facility.

The SPF is the world's largest vacuum chamber. That makes it the best place on Earth's surface to test rockets and spacecraft in conditions that resemble those of outer space.

There's plenty of new NASA hardware that has to be tested to carry out Constellation, including big Ares rockets for Constellation and the Orion spacecraft. Plum Brook is as good a place as any to test rocket ships, and better than most.

Erie County's commissioners have bought land for a new business park on Huron-Avery Road, hoping that new activity at Plum Brook will attract high-tech companies to Erie County (such as Sierra Lobo, an existing business in Milan.)

Commissioners also have obtained millions of dollars of grant money to build a sewer line extending service on U.S. 250 south from Kalahari to the Ohio turnpike.

The Constellation program was created by the Bush administration, however, and no one knows yet what Barack Obama's plans are for NASA.

At various points during his campaign, Obama advocated gutting NASA's budget and increasing it. His pro-NASA comments came during the later part of the campaign, which I hope is a good sign.

The New York Times ran a long article about all this on Dec. 29, headlined, "The Fight Over NASA's Future." If you want to read it online, you can follow the link from the Dec. 31 posting on my blog at NASA's current boss, Michael D. Griffin, wants to stay on, but that's considered unlikely.

The article said the Ares rocket has experienced delays and cost problems, and that Obama's NASA transition team has been asking questions about a wide range of possible options.

There's been discussion, for example, abandoning Ares and modifying existing Atlas and Delta rockets to carry the Orion.

Another option that's being weighed is to keep flying the space shuttle. The Bush administration had planned to stop shuttle flying the shuttle in 2010 and projected a five-year gap before Constellation missions would start.

NASA's annual budget is $17 billion a year and the space agency has to compete for money as the nation faces an economy in crisis, the Times article notes.

Let's hope that whatever direction the space program goes in will allow NASA Plum Brook Station to play a major role.