Barack Obama is the latest in a line of liberal presidents who never met a government program they couldn’t introduce or expand. But, Reason‘s Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward explains in the February 2017 issue of Reason, when it comes to space exploration, Obama’s unlikely legacy is as a “privatizer.”
After Obama nixed Bush’s pie-in-the-sky scheme, stick-in-the-mud Republicans hustled to remind anyone who was paying attention that they, too, could be the party of big government and bureaucracy. The Space Launch System, an expensive post-Constellation scheme, was designed by Congress to Frankenstein heavy-lift rockets and a capsule out of the scavenged remains of the shuttle program—to be built, naturally, in the districts of powerful lawmakers, including Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida. It is sometimes affectionately referred to as the Senate Launch System, for obvious reasons.
Amid the usual horse trading, though, the Obama administration managed something rather remarkable: It carved out a little money and a lot of room for the private space industry to flourish, extending another Bush-era program that most people assumed was on the chopping block. The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services project—funded at the cost of less than a single shuttle flight—was aimed at encouraging private companies to develop the capacity to serve the transport needs of the International Space Station (ISS). The result was successful public-private partnerships with Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. An adjacent effort created Commercial Resupply Services contracts with private companies to deliver cargo to the space station, and later commercial crew vehicles to carry human passengers.