NASA’s New Space Plan a 'Radical Change,' Lawmakers Say
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.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

A Congressional subcommittee on Thursday urged caution for the new NASA space exploration plan unveiled earlier this month, and criticized its lack of a defined vision and dependence on commercial ventures to fly astronauts in space.

In a Thursday hearing, members of a House Science and Technology Committee reviewing the 2011 NASA budget request by President Barack Obama said that despite its positive boosts for science and technology, the plan 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 from the approach to human spaceflight and exploration that has been authorized and funded by the successful Congresses of the last five years,? committee chairman Bart Gordon (R-Tennessee) told NASA chief Charles Bolden during the two-hour hearing. ?It has raised as many questions as it has answered.?

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

NASA?s new plan

The $19 billion budget request represents an increase from NASA?s $18.3 billion 2010 budget. In addition to funding new science and technology development, it would extend the life of the International Space Station 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 next five years to support the development of commercial spacecraft to ferry NASA astronauts to low-Earth orbit. The agency already has contracts in place with two American companies to deliver unmanned cargo ships to the International Space Station.

But Gordon and other committee members said they were gravely concerned over the cancellation of NASA?s Constellation program responsible for building the new Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets envisioned to return astronauts to the moon.

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

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

Shifting to commercial spaceships

NASA has spent $9 billion over the last five years on the Constellation program and launched the first suborbital rocket test ? Ares I-X ? in late October. Just days before that test, a White House-appointed panel that reviewed NASA?s space exploration plan stated that it was severely underfunded and on an ?unsustainable path? to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 ? a stated goal of the previous vision.

Commercial spacecraft builders, the panel found, may be able to free NASA for more lofty exploration goals by providing taxi flights to orbit. But lawmakers said if those commercial ventures fail, NASA would be left without independent access to space.

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

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

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

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

The other, relative newcomer, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., has the first of its new Falcon 9 rockets atop a launch pad in Florida in preparation for a flight test debut later this year. ?SpaceX has also successfully launched a smaller homegrown rocket, the Falcon 1, into orbit twice in five flights, most recently last summer.

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

In a Senate commerce subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Bolden said the ultimate destination for astronauts is still Mars ? something he repeated in today?s hearing.

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

?Our work gives people an opportunity to imagine what is barely 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 achievement as it spurs innovation, employs Americans in exciting jobs and inspires people around the world.?

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

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