Later this week, two Florida legislators are expected to introduce a bill designed to keep space shuttles launching through most of 2011, and to give NASA's endangered Constellation program an apparent reprieve. Constellation – two new rockets, a crew capsule, and hardware for a return to the moon by 2020 – is NASA's current approach to replacing the aging shuttle fleet, set for retirement at the end of September.
"When the shuttle retires, that leaves the US with no way into space," except by turning to Russia for seats on its Soyuz vehicles to ferry US astronauts to and from the International Space Station, says one congressional aide familiar with the bills. NASA's fiscal year 2011 budget proposal would undercut US leadership in space and in effect outsource jobs to Russia, he says.
The president's budget plan, unveiled last month, would increase NASA's funding by $6 billion over the next five years. But it would radically reshape the human spaceflight program. It could cancel Constellation, nurture the private sector's capability to launch cargo and astronauts to the space station, and focus NASA's efforts on developing technologies that would lead to new, more cost-effective rockets powerful enough to launch astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit – a region of near-Earth space the space station inhabits.
The program has been heavily criticized for failing to headline a high-profile destination or provide a timetable for reaching it. The administration's proposal mentions potential destinations deep in the documents – trips to asteroids, the moon, and ultimately Mars, for instance. But launches to these destinations would happen during the decade of the 2020s, and at a far slower pace than the country has grown used to seeing with the shuttle program.
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.
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.