NASA’s New Space Plan a 'Radical Change,' Lawmakers Say

NASA Awards $50 Million to Commercial Spaceship Builders
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden speaks during a press conference, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, at the National Press Club in Washington, where the it was announced that NASA has awarded $50 million through funded agreements to further the commercial sector's capability to support transport of crew to and from low Earth orbit. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A Congressional subcommittee on Thursday urged caution for the newNASA space exploration plan unveiled earlier this month, and criticized itslack of a defined vision and dependence on commercial ventures to flyastronauts in space.

In a Thursday hearing, members of a House Science andTechnology Committee reviewing the 2011 NASA budget request by President BarackObama said that despite its positive boosts for science and technology, theplan does little to inspire the public and could diminish the United States?role as a leader in human spaceflight.

?This budget proposal represents a radical change fromthe approach to humanspaceflight and exploration that has been authorized and funded by the successfulCongresses of the last five years,? committee chairman Bart Gordon(R-Tennessee) told NASA chief Charles Bolden during the two-hour hearing. ?Ithas raised as many questions as it has answered.?

The hearing came one day after Bolden testified before aSenate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on the challenges of NASA?snew space plan.

NASA?s new plan

The $19 billion budget request represents an increasefrom NASA?s $18.3 billion 2010 budget. In addition to funding new science andtechnology development, it would extend the life of the International SpaceStation by at least five years, to 2020. All of those features are laudable,Gordon said.

The new plan would set aside $6 billion over the nextfive years to support the development of commercialspacecraft to ferry NASA astronauts to low-Earth orbit. The agency alreadyhas contracts in place with two American companies to deliver unmanned cargoships to the International Space Station.

But Gordon and other committee members said they were gravelyconcerned over the cancellation of NASA?s Constellation program responsible forbuilding the new Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets envisioned to return astronautsto the moon.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who ismarried to veteran NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, praised the budget proposal?s commitmentto space science. ?

But scrapping the Constellation program?s rockets andspacecraft is akin to a ?decimation of the most exciting project or programthat the United States does,? Giffords said.

Shifting to commercial spaceships

NASA has spent $9 billion over the last five years on theConstellation program and launched the first suborbital rocket test ?Ares I-X ? in late October. Just days before that test, a White House-appointedpanel that reviewed NASA?s space exploration plan stated that it was severelyunderfunded and on an ?unsustainable path? to return astronauts to the moon by2020 ? a stated goal of the previous vision.

Commercial spacecraft builders, the panel found, may beable to free NASA for more lofty exploration goals by providing taxi flights toorbit. But lawmakers said if those commercial ventures fail, NASA would be leftwithout independent access to space.

?I think that what you?re doing is taking a shot in thedark,? said Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Florida).

Bolden countered that NASA is taking great care in the selection of commercialpartners for unmanned and manned spaceflights.

?We?re not talking about hobby shops,? Bolden said. ?We?retalking about very accomplished professionals.?

The Virginia-based company Orbital Sciences, one of thetwo companies chosen by NASA to provide commercial cargo flights to the spacestation, is a long-time veteran of spacecraft construction and rocket launches.

The other, relative newcomer, Space ExplorationTechnologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., has the first of its new Falcon9 rockets atop a launch pad in Florida in preparation for a flight testdebut later this year. ?SpaceX has also successfully launched a smallerhomegrown rocket, the Falcon 1, into orbit twice in five flights, most recentlylast summer.

The new plan unveiled by President Obama would do awaywith the Constellation program to focus more on the fundamental science andtechnology, which supporters say is vital to expand human exploration back tothe moon or even more attractive destinations like the moon, Mars and its twomoons, asteroids and stable points in space called Lagrange points.

In a Senate commerce subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Boldensaid the ultimate destination for astronauts is still Mars ? something herepeated in today?s hearing.

But even with unlimited funding, NASA cannot send astronautsto Mars until it solves basic concerns over long-term space radiation exposure,Bolden said. New rocket propulsion studies are needed to determine if there arefaster ways to reach the red planet rather than months-long journeys, he said.

?Our work gives people an opportunity to imagine what isbarely possible and we at NASA get to turn those dreams into real achievements,?Bolden said. ??This budget gives NASA a roadmap to even more historic achievementas it spurs innovation, employs Americans in exciting jobs and inspires peoplearound the world.?

Congress members said they were taken aback when theagency revealed details of its 2011 budget request to news reporters daysbefore the budget itself was unveiled. The fact that it took nearly a month forNASA to provide its justification documents for the budget request to Congresswas also unacceptable, Gordon said.

?I apologize and ask your continued patience as wefinalize the details of this historic change in NASA?s direction,? Bolden said.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.