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.
(Page 2 of 2)
The House has yet to pass its NASA authorization bill, but it looks significantly different – much more like the Constellation program the president's plan aimed to replace. Constellation included two rockets – one for astronauts, one for cargo – a manned capsule, and a development program for hardware that would be used for an outpost on the moon. The House plan spends less on technology development than even the Senate's reduced amount for R&D, and it cuts out money for robotic "scout" missions to the objects astronauts would eventually explore.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Fourteen Nobel laureates in the sciences signed a letter in late August critical of the House measure for its impact on R&D, efforts to nurture the commercial sector, and other elements of the bill.
The cuts were a way to keep NASA's budget to $19 billion while continuing a Constellation-like program, offers Louis Friedman, co-founder of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif., which also has opposed the House version.
But, the House version, or something akin to it, has supporters as well.
Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who put the Constellation program in motion after President George W. Bush appointed him in 2005, noted in remarks at a space-policy roundtable in Washington last week that the Senate measure represents "a more mature" approach to exploration than the White House plan, and that the House version is better yet.
The best outcome, he reportedly told to attendees, was a blend of the best of the House and Senate versions.
But "best" appears to be in the eye of the beholder. "Best" is being argued as much on economic and ideological grounds as on technical and fiscal merit, analysts say. The issue of jobs looms large in an economy still struggling with what some have dubbed "the great recession."
On Capitol Hill, some staff members suggest that if a NASA authorization bill has a hope of passing before the end of the year, the House will have to move much closer to the Senate version -- itself a carefully brokered compromise trying to balance jobs through a shuttle-derived rocket with a new direction for the agency.
If the current version of the House bill passes, a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate bills is unlikely to occur before year's end, requiring a continuing resolution to fund the agency until the requisite authorization and appropriations bills pass.
Dr. Freidman suggests another alternative – a meltdown at the authorization level would leave the task of hammering out a budget for NASA to the relevant appropriations committees.
"Maybe they can take a less partisan and a more considered view of all that's going on," he says.