Final shuttle mission: Who'll supply the International Space Station now?
Atlantis and its four-member crew, in the final mission of the space shuttle program, shrugged off concerns about the weather and took off for one last supply run to the International Space Station.
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Despite criticism in Washington and among several spaceflight veterans that a post-shuttle NASA has little or no sense of its next steps, officials maintain that they are taking concrete steps toward preparing to explore a new set of destinations.Skip to next paragraph
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The Orion capsule, one of the centerpieces of an exploration architecture established under President George W. Bush, remains on the books to sit atop a new "heavy lift" rocket the agency is designing to reach beyond low-Earth orbit, the International Space Station's domain.
In a statement following the launch, President Obama noted that while the shuttle program is ending, "I have tasked the men and women of NASA with an ambitious new mission: to break new boundaries in space exploration, ultimately sending Americans to Mars. I know they are up to the challenge – and I plan to be around to see it."
Yet in a period when the nation's fiscal woes top the political agenda, meeting that challenge may be difficult.
One signal came Wednesday with the release of a draft budget appropriations bill for fiscal 2012 from the GOP-led House appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NASA.
The committee is proposing to spend slightly more than $1 billion for the Orion program, and nearly $2 billion for the new heavy-lift rocket NASA is working on. That is more than the administration sought in its fiscal 2012 proposal. But the levels represent cuts from the sum recommended in an authorization bill Congress passed last October.
If enacted, the cuts could stretch out the program, raising its overall costs and delaying the day Mr. Obama plans to be around to see.
In addition, the draft budget holds no money for two programs NASA has implemented for nurturing the private launch efforts on which the agency has pinned its space-station cargo- and crew-resupply hopes. This means that NASA will have to shuffle money around internally, as it did this fiscal year, to keep those programs going.
Much can happen between a draft appropriations measure from one subcommittee of one branch of Congress, and a final, reconciled appropriation bill a president signs, cautions William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.
Still, he says, "We understand the tough environment and we'll work with that ... and be prepared to execute what we get when we finally get an answer from Congress."
IN PICTURES: Atlantis: The final mission