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NASA's down-to-earth problem

Special interests are focused on saving contracts and funding in certain regions.

March 22, 2010|By Louis Friedman

It is an old saying in Washington: "The president proposes, but Congress disposes."

Congress may well dispose of the president's plan for NASA, but if all they do is try to protect the special interests of their own congressional districts, then we will again have a human spaceflight program with no rationale except to protect vested interests.

Twenty-seven members of Congress (two-thirds of them from Alabama and Texas) have written to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden saying: "The termination of the Constellation programs is a proposal by the president, but it is Congress who will accept or reject that proposal. In the meantime, FY10 funds for the Constellation programs are to be spent as if the program will continue."

If Congress forces that spending, it guarantees that at least an additional $2 billion of NASA funds will be wasted -- $2 billion!

However the budget proposal is acted on in Congress, it is clear that the nation is not going to go ahead with the Constellation project, which had a primary goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020 -- neither its Ares I rocket, which was to replace the space shuttle in delivering humans into Earth orbit, nor its moon mission. The 2004 Vision for Space Exploration may have been farsighted, but its implementation plan for Constellation was shortsighted: an inadequate goal and inadequate funds to achieve it.

Special interests are now focused on saving contracts and funding in particular congressional districts. Two examples are GOP Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama. They oppose government spending, except when it takes care of the folks at home. Both have called for decreases in the federal budget while seeking continuation of spending on Constellation, even though it is no longer possible to meet its goals.

Outside of congressional special interests, there is much more support for the new Obama administration plan. Former astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin and Sally Ride, and other space and science experts have voiced their approval of the administration's proposed NASA budget. Political leaders as diverse as Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and former House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich have also expressed their support.

The Planetary Society and 11 other nonprofit space interest groups have issued a position statement (as part of the Space Exploration Alliance) applauding "the administration's desire to begin human exploration of the solar system as well as for embracing these other valuable initiatives" in its proposed budget, while at the same time seeking timetable and technical details from NASA on the path for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit.

The new budget's increase in NASA funding, stimulating of commercial partner funding and active promotion of international cooperation all bode well for a sustainable and exciting human spaceflight program. Constellation proponents' complaints about a lack of a destination in the president's space policy are disingenuous. The destination for human exploration eventually will be Mars, and that was recently reiterated by Bolden. But imagine the political reaction if the administration were to propose a human mission to Mars now.

Almost all in the space exploration community are united in support of Mars as the ultimate goal to advance human exploration beyond Earth orbit, and of increased funding for NASA. There are differences of opinion about milestones and technology and interim goals, including what architecture is needed to build a human Mars mission. Missions to return to the moon, to go to near-Earth objects and to the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos are all still to be decided. International and commercial partners need to be engaged.

However, all of these necessary steps can be worked out only if the administration is allowed to proceed with a new plan, new dates, new milestones and a realistic budget.

It was the Constellation plan that lost its focus. Declaring a destination is not enough. We have to prepare our way into the solar system, and the flexible path defined in 2009 by the Augustine Committee -- charged by President Obama to review the U.S. human spaceflight program -- will do just that. That blue-ribbon panel came up with a path recommendation to take humans on an ever-increasing series of longer flights, eventually reaching Mars. The technical accomplishments are to be defined as the program is developed and funds are made available.

The question before Congress and the nation, and indeed the world, is: Do we start the journey down that path now, or do we dither around in Earth orbit for another decade or two? NASA needs a new way of doing business. Constellation probably would not have gotten us to the moon until nearly 2030, and not beyond the moon until well after that. The new plan -- harnessing government and private resources, engaging international partners and building up new technology -- can yield quicker and greater achievements with more public interest. Let's give it a chance.

Louis Friedman is the executive director of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society.

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