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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sununu’s Out-of-this-World Outsourcing Claim

John Sununu claimed President Obama “outsourced a major portion of the U.S. space program to the Russians.” But it was President Bush who set NASA on a path eight years ago to retire the Space Shuttle and rely on the Russians for space travel.

“[Bush] Administration policy is to retire the shuttle in 2010 and purchase crew transport from Russia,” as then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin once explained.

To be sure, Obama ended the Space Shuttle program, leaving the U.S. to rely on the Russians for the July 14 launch of a Soyuz spaceship that carried a U.S. astronaut — the event that prompted Sununu’s remark. But Griffin, who led NASA under Bush, privately blamed the Bush White House in internal emails in 2008 for launching a “jihad” to retire the shuttle without giving NASA the authority and funds to simultaneously replace it.

Sununu, the former Republican governor of New Hampshire, appears frequently on TV to speak for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. On July 16, Sununu went on CNN to defend Romney against charges that he outsourced U.S. jobs overseas as the head of Bain Capital. In doing so, he criticizing Obama for outsourcing the U.S. space program to Russia.

Sununu, July 16: In fact, we had an event yesterday that wasn’t well reported. We launched a U.S. astronaut up to the space station. But you know how … she was launched? She was launched on a Russian spacecraft because President Obama has outsourced a major portion of the U.S. space program to the Russians. That’s national policy. Taxpayer money. So, let’s stop playing games with this outsourcing distortion.

Actually, it is Sununu who is engaging in “outsourcing distortion” — ignoring the history of the space program that led the U.S. to rely on Russian transportation.

In the CNN interview, Sununu was referring to the July 14 launch of a Russian Soyuz spaceship that carried U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams to the International Space Station.  NASA needed to hitch a ride to the space station because it retired the Space Shuttle last year after 30 years of service. The shuttle program ended July 21, 2011, when the last shuttle returned from a 13-day mission to the space station.

It was Bush who laid the plans for the shuttle’s retirement. In 2004, Bush directed NASA to retire the shuttle in 2010 to coincide with the scheduled completion of the space station. It was part of Bush’s new plan for NASA that also called for the agency “to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014,” with the goal of reaching the moon in 2020 and using it as a base for future trips to Mars.

As the New York Times reported at the time, “there would be no American manned access to space between the shuttle’s retirement in 2010 and the launching of the exploration vehicle, envisioned for 2014.”

That four-year gap in U.S. manned flight would later widen to at least five years and become a problem for both the Bush and Obama administrations. As the shuttle’s retirement date drew near, the U.S. realized that it would need help from Russia — one of its partners in the space station.

In a 2007 speech at Georgetown University, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the U.S. may have “no alternative other than to use Soyuz for crew transport and rescue.”

Griffin, Nov. 16, 2007: While I do not relish the idea of paying Russia some $900 million in U.S. taxpayer funds through 2011, and possibly more in later years, the alternative – removing American presence from the ISS – is worse.

In August 2008, Griffin urged Congress to pass legislation that would include a waiver that would allow NASA to pay Russia for flights to the space station. At issue was a 2000 law, which barred federal agencies from contracting with nations, including Russia, that help advance Iran’s nuclear ambitions. NASA was exempted from the ban, but only until Jan. 1, 2012. Griffin testified that it was “urgent” to extend the waiver as soon as possible because the Russians needed time to build the necessary vehicles, the Washington Post wrote.

In early September 2008, Griffin expressed concern about the safety of the shuttle as he lobbied Congress to pass the waiver. He told the Orlando Sentinel that flying the shuttle for an additional five years, to 2015, would greatly increase the odds of shuttle disaster that would cost the lives of the crew. “This is why the shuttle needs to be retired,” he told the paper.

Congress passed an emergency spending bill that included a provision to extend NASA’s exemption with Russia until July 1, 2016. Bush signed the bill on Sept. 30, 2008.

Griffin wasn’t with NASA when Bush announced his space plan. He became NASA’s administrator in 2005, replacing Sean O’Keefe. But Griffin was the one left to implement Bush’s ambitious plan, and he complained in internal emails obtained by the Orlando Sentinel that the Bush White House was not doing enough to adequately fund it.

Specifically, Griffin blamed the Office of Budget and Management and the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Bush White House for failing to pressure Congress to provide the funds necessary to avoid a gap between the shuttle’s scheduled retirement in 2010 and the completion of the Ares moon rocket and Orion crew capsule.

Sentinel, Sept. 7, 2008: Griffin’s harshest words were reserved for his bosses in the White House — the Office of Management and Budget, which sets spending goals, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which advises the president.

“In a rational world, we would have been allowed to pick a shuttle retirement date to be consistent with Ares/Orion availability, we would have been asked to deploy Ares/Orion as early as possible (rather than ‘not later than 2014’) and we would have been provided the necessary budget to make it so,” he wrote.

“The rational approach didn’t happen, primarily because for OSTP and OMB, retiring the shuttle is a jihad rather than an engineering and program management decision.”

Bush’s plan, which became known as the Constellation program, fell behind schedule and was scraped by Obama. In an April 15, 2010, speech at NASA headquarters, Obama questioned spending money to return to the moon and instead directed NASA to develop plans for deep-space exploration. Obama’s plan called for orbiting Mars by the mid-2030s.

Although he disagreed with Bush’s vision for NASA, Obama agreed that the shuttle should be retired — although it took until 2011 because flight delays pushed back completion of the space station.

As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Congress in March, the space station was completed in 2011 and the partner countries have agreed to keep it operational through 2020. Bolden said NASA will use commercial flights for cargo and Russian flights for the transportation of astronauts. He said he anticipates relying on Russia into 2017.

It is not the first time that U.S. astronauts have gone to the space station aboard the Soyuz. After the Feb. 1, 2003, Columbia disaster that killed all seven crew members, NASA suspended the shuttle program for two years. But NASA astronaut Edward Lu two months later traveled to the space station aboard the Russian space vehicle.

— Eugene Kiely