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President Gives NASA A New Course

But many in Congress are raising serious questions about the agency's human space exploration plans

by Susan R. Morrissey
March 15, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 11

Credit: Sean Smith/NASA
The Ares I-X test rocket, which was successfully launched last fall and is part of the Constellation Program, would not be further developed under the 2011 budget.
Credit: Sean Smith/NASA
The Ares I-X test rocket, which was successfully launched last fall and is part of the Constellation Program, would not be further developed under the 2011 budget.

The National Aeronautics & Space Administration is an agency that is used to commanding the world’s attention. In the late 1960s and the ’70s, the agency’s lunar missions captured people’s fascination. Since the ’80s, the focus has been on the space shuttle program.

Now, NASA is grabbing the limelight not for a space accomplishment, but rather for a new exploration plan that some say threatens to kill the nation’s ability to put humans in space. The plan, rolled out last month as part of President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget, terminates the agency’s current program for human space exploration and replaces it with a technology development program that relies heavily on commercial partners.

Congress, which has in the recent past provided nonpartisan support for NASA’s exploration efforts, did not receive the Administration’s new plan well. At the first of a series of hearings in the House of Representatives and the Senate by committees that have program oversight of NASA, members of both parties made it clear that gaining support for this new road map will be an uphill battle.

“This budget proposal represents a radical change from the approach to human space flight and exploration that has been authorized and funded by successive Congresses over the past five years,” said House Science & Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) at the start of his committee’s Feb. 25 hearing. “This new approach is not clearly traceable to either past legislation or past policy directives, and it has raised as many questions as it has answered.”

Echoing Gordon, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Science & Technology Subcommittee on Space & Aeronautics, said: “What is most striking about the budget is the lack of an overall vision. It is simply unfair to ask the American people to hand over billions of dollars for something that isn’t even detailed enough to qualify for a loan from a loan shark.”

Such frustration was expressed by several members of both the House and Senate, who wanted more details about the Administration’s plan, set to replace NASA’s Constellation Program, which aims to develop the next generation of space vehicles to carry astronauts into low Earth orbit and beyond. As introduced on Feb. 1, President Obama’s plan broadly includes a new focus on technology development by NASA and use of commercial partners to build new spacecrafts. But virtually no specifics—including the ultimate mission destination—are given.

Part of Congress’ concern is that for the past four years NASA has spent some $9 billion on the Constellation Program, and there is general agreement that the program is technologically feasible.

But NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. testified at the House and Senate hearings that he doesn’t believe “we would have ever gotten anywhere with Constellation,” not because it is a bad program but because it has not been supported financially. The new plan will be more affordable and sustainable because it takes advantage of the commercial sector to do some of the heavy-technology lifting, according to Bolden.

The agency is looking hard at what has been learned from the Constellation Program, Bolden noted at both hearings, and will pull out useful developments that can be employed by commercial partners going forward. This reliance on commercial sources to do what NASA has traditionally done itself made many members of both houses uneasy.

Credit: SpaceX
Commercial firm SpaceX is moving along with the development of the Falcon 9 rocket, which could one day shuttle astronauts into space for NASA.
Credit: SpaceX
Commercial firm SpaceX is moving along with the development of the Falcon 9 rocket, which could one day shuttle astronauts into space for NASA.

“We need to ensure we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket with NASA’s plan to rely heavily on private companies to develop new rocket ships,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Science & Space, at a Feb. 24 hearing. “And we must do right by the men and women who have made this space program what it is.”

On the House side, Gordon also questioned the wisdom of relying on commercial partners to provide yet-to-be-developed technology without a backup government option. His comments were reinforced by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who likened the new plan to “taking a shot in the dark” and making NASA’s human space exploration program a “faith based” program.

For Bolden, however, the commercial shift is more of an opportunity. He noted that with the Constellation Program, NASA would have effectively had only one option for space flight, but with commercial partners, such as SpaceX—which is already testing rockets capable of taxiing astronauts to and from space—several options could be possible.

Although the specifics of the plan are still being fleshed out, Bolden did clarify one important detail first at the Senate subcommittee hearing and again a day later at the House hearing—the ultimate destination. The new plan would target Mars as its goal, with intermediate missions to the moon, asteroids, and the Lagrange points.

“You just made some news,” said Nelson, referring to the fact that this was the first time such detail was given.

With respect to the new plan’s classification as radical, Bolden said it is not a significant departure from previous visions for human space exploration, including the vision that led to the Constellation Program. The difference is that this plan will have the resources to achieve its goal, whereas the current program never received the funding needed.

“Someone once told me, ‘A vision without resources is a hallucination,’ ” Bolden testified, adding that “prior to the 2011 budget, we were living a hallucination.”

To this comment, Sen. David B. Vitter (R-La.), Science & Space Subcommittee ranking member, fired back, “If a vision without resources is a hallucination, then resources without a vision is a waste of time,” and, he contended, that’s what this new plan represents.

Another concern expressed at both hearings is that the new program would not inspire young people and, in turn, would fail to drive them to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The lack of a clear mission—with a set destination and timeline—fails to inspire students at a time when the Administration wants to encourage more of them to go into STEM fields, House Science & Technology committee member Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) said.

However, Bolden, a former astronaut, expressed confidence that NASA will continue to be a source of inspiration. “Americans and people worldwide have turned to NASA for inspiration throughout our history. Our work gives people an opportunity to imagine what is barely possible, and we at NASA get to turn those dreams into real achievements for all humankind,” he said at both hearings. “This budget gives NASA a road map to even more historic achievements as it spurs innovation, employs Americans in fulfilling jobs, and engages people around the world as we enter an exciting new era in space.”


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