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Congressional tug-of-war holds NASA's new direction in the balance

As the space shuttle program folds, the House and Senate – and broader spaceflight community – have struggled to reach consensus on NASA's new human spaceflight focus.

By Staff writer / September 14, 2010

President Barack Obama walks past a main engine of a space shuttle as he arrives to speak on the new course the administration is charting for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 15.

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Not since the end of the Apollo program has the country's human-spaceflight program faced such a profound turning point, this time with little consensus on a new direction.

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That accounts for the unusual, highly public tug-of-war over a new direction for NASA in Congress and within the broader spaceflight community that has marked the past several months.

"It really is pretty unprecedented," says Roger Launius, a spaceflight historian and curator of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

"Most of the time, people lock arms and agree that they're going to pursue a particular path," he says. When disagreements have arisen, they've tended to be modest and around the edges. "That's not true anymore," Dr. Launius says.

The debate essentially pits so-called "new space" advocates and entrepreneurs against some long-established aerospace interests. Ironically, the situation finds some key Republican lawmakers supporting a (relatively) large government-only approach to human spaceflight instead of supporting a budding and increasingly competent private-sector approach, as the Democratic president has proposed.

In February, President Obama proposed a significant change in direction for the agency, based largely on the counsel of an advisory panel the White House appointed last summer to present options for the human spaceflight program's future. In essence, the White House argued that its plan would place NASA's human-spaceflight emphasis on exploration beyond low-Earth orbit instead of on building a rocket as part of what had become a fiscally unsustainable program to provide regular cargo and crew service to the International Space Station.

To accomplish that, the president's proposed budget aimed to beef-up efforts to nurture the commercial launch sector, for instance, and strengthen research into new technologies, including rocket motors, that would reduce the launch costs of a new heavy-lift rocket and support direct human exploration of the solar system.

Both houses of Congress have had little trouble agreeing to meet the president's overall request to authorize $19 billion for the agency for fiscal 2011.

Not so with the direction for NASA's human-spaceflight portfolio.

In early August, the Senate passed an authorization bill that bears some resemblance to the President's original blueprint – but with scaled back support for the commercial-launch sector and an accelerated timetable for building a rocket powerful enough to loft people and hardware beyond low-Earth orbit. That rocket, the Senate said, should be based on space-shuttle-derived components.

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