Pants on Fire!
Chain email
Barack Obama is the "First President to terminate America’s ability to put a man in space."

Chain email on Tuesday, October 25th, 2011 in a chain e-mail

Chain e-mail claims Obama is first president to "terminate America’s ability to put a man in space"

The space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on Nov. 16, 2009, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We looked into a chain e-mail's claim that President Barack Obama is to blame for the nation's inability to send astronauts into space.

A reader recently forwarded us a chain e-mail critical of President Barack Obama that’s been making the rounds. It’s headlined, "Barack Obama's 32 Month Report Card."

"Mr. Hope and Change wants to create a nation humbled; humiliated, casting-aside capitalism and individual freedoms for one where ‘we the people’ are government controlled," says the chain e-mail, which is attributed to a Rich Carroll. "This would be a system that genuflects mediocrity, steals personal aspiration and opportunity, and punishes those who strive to succeed."

The e-mail proceeds to offer roughly three dozen "firsts" about Obama, all of them highly unflattering.

We can’t check each and every claim in the e-mail, but we decided instead to spot-check a few claims we hadn’t seen before. (Here’s the full text of the e-mail we received.)

The one we’ll check here is that Obama is the "First President to terminate America’s ability to put a man in space."

On July 21, 2011, space shuttle Atlantis arrived at its home port, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, concluding the last-ever shuttle mission. With the end of the space shuttle program, it’s correct that the United States no longer has the ability to send an astronaut into space by a domestic launch.

The hope is that commercial companies based in the U.S. will be ready to launch by 2016, if Congress provides NASA with adequate funding, said Marcia Smith of NASA's own system is not likely to be ready until at least 2020, though that might be accelerated by a couple of years at most, she said.

So, for at least five years, the United States will not be able to send astronauts into orbit. In the interim, American astronauts are slated to blast off on Russian spacecraft, according to what NASA told PolitiFact Texas the last time we checked this issue. Unlike the reusable space shuttles, the Russian crafts -- which are launched from a base in Kazakhstan -- are disposable.

So the chain e-mail contains a grain of truth that the U.S. no longer has the "ability to put a man in space" -- at least from American soil. (The author of the e-mail would have been more accurate if he'd made clear that we’re unable to do domestic launches specifically.)

Still, containing that grain of truth doesn’t mean the e-mail’s claim is correct. Initially, we focused on the question of whether it was fair to blame Obama singlehandedly for the current state of affairs for U.S. manned launches. Knowing how long it takes space programs to come to fruition, we were skeptical that it Obama deserved all the blame.

When we contacted space experts for their view, they agreed that it would be unfair to blame only Obama.

"President George W. Bush directed NASA to shut down the shuttle program, with full knowledge that there would be a multi-year gap for human spaceflight," said Edward Ellegood, a space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Although President Obama could have tried to reverse that directive, he opted instead to promote the near-term development of U.S. commercial capabilities for transportation to and from low-earth orbit (which includes the International space station) and, in the longer term, to develop a heavy-lift NASA-operated launch system for exploration missions beyond low-earth orbit."

So Ellegood sees several problems with the chain e-mail’s claim. Obama did not terminate the shuttle capability -- rather, the timing was set in motion by his predecessor, Bush. And once in office, Obama added two shuttle missions in order to reduce the duration of the gap and also worked to get the shuttle’s commercial-based replacement lined up.

But there’s another fact that’s even more damning to the e-mail’s claim: Having a gap in U.S. space flights carrying astronauts actually happened once before, making the claim completely untrue.

The United States had no ability to launch astronauts into space from 1975 -- the year of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project -- until 1981, when the space shuttle program went live.

"One could blame (President Richard) Nixon, who ended Apollo and approved the shuttle, or (President Gerald) Ford, who didn't disagree with Nixon, though by 1974 it might have been too late to rescue Apollo," Smith said. "Usually it's Nixon who is ‘blamed’ for that. By the time Carter came into office, Apollo had already ended and shuttle couldn't be accelerated. It actually was supposed to be ready by 1979, but NASA couldn't pull it off."

That the author of the e-mail made this charge against Obama is evidence that "no one really noticed the original gap at the time, or remembers it today, even though it was a six-year gap," Smith said.

Our ruling

Whether one wants to blame Bush or Obama for our current predicament turns out to be irrelevant to the question raised in the e-mail. Richard Nixon, perhaps in conjunction with Gerald Ford, would be the one to qualify for the unwanted title of "first president to terminate America’s ability to put a man in space" -- not Obama. We rate this claim Pants on Fire.