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Congress tries to alter Obama's plans for NASA

Upset over Obama's plans for NASA, two US lawmakers from Florida plan to introduce a bill that would keep the space shuttle launching through 2011 and throw a lifeline to the endangered moon exploration program Constellation.

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Much of the criticism may stem as much from the administration's approach to crafting its new direction for NASA as it does from the specifics of the proposal.

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Politically, Washington finds itself in a situation unprecedented in the history of the US space program, according to Howard McCurdy, a space-policy specialist at American University in Washington.

In the past, administrations involved large numbers of people at NASA in developing any new direction for the agency, he explains. "So when the president arrives, whether it's on Capitol Hill or at NASA headquarters, and moves his lips, everybody knows what the outline of the issue is."

In Obama's case, the president called for an independent panel to lay out options for a fiscally sustainable human spaceflight program. After working through last summer, the panel presented five groups of options. But the president's choice – a path the panel identified as the best mix of sustainability and potentially inspiring destinations – "was never fully vetted within the agency," Dr. McCurdy says.

Moreover, this change has flipped the traditional roles of Congress and the White House in space policy, he continues. From Kennedy through George W. Bush, past presidents have leaned on Congress to fund big-ticket human spaceflight projects or changes to existing projects, with Congress fretting about the cost. This year, the White House is playing the role of fiscal watchdog on human spaceflight through its mantra of fiscal sustainability, with some lawmakers trying to add money to NASA's budget to keep the shuttle program running a bit longer and keep Constellation alive.

As if to underscore the political pickle the White House finds itself in, the administration announced over the weekend that Obama will host a conference in Florida April 15 to explain the rationale for its budget plan.

Yet Congress also shoulders some of the responsibility for the human spaceflight program's current uncertainty, suggests Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor specializing in space policy at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

"Our program has been in very serious jeopardy since President Bush gave the 'vision speech' " six years ago that led to the Constellation program, she says. "The Constellation program was never properly funded."

If lawmakers don't like Obama's approach, "they are perfectly capable of putting the money back in," she says.