The Washington Post is reporting that the clash over the future of the US manned space program is reaching a new stage in the Congress, with a resolution-or not-expected sometime this week.
While the original Obama space proposal seems to be all but dead, the impasse is between two different versions of the NASA authorization bill, one from the Senate and one from the House. The Senate version preserves President Obama’s commercial space initiative, but also insists on the immediate development of a shuttle derived heavy lift vehicle as well as the Orion space craft envisioned for the Constellation program. The House version curtails spending on commercial space and tries to preserve the Constellation program, albeit under a low level of spending.
House and Senate negotiators are trying to arrive at some kind of compromise, but sources say that a stalemate is possible. A stalemate would mean that NASA’s next year’s budget could be funded under a continuing resolution, which would mean that the current Constellation program would continue, though with less than adequate funding.
The leader of the opposition to the Obama space policy is somewhat surprising.
“A leader of the effort against the Obama plan has been Michael Griffin, the head of NASA under Bush. Griffin has been on the Hill regularly in past months arguing in favor of keeping the full Constellation program, and he has been especially influential in the House, where a Science and Technology subcommittee passed a bill before recess restoring funds to Constellation.”
Mike Griffin has made no secret of his opinion that the Constellation program, designed to return Americans to the Moon by 2020, was sabotaged by the Bush Office of Management and Budget, which did not adequately fund the effort. Griffin has furthermore been very vocal in his objections to the Obama space policy that would cancel Constellation and pour billions of dollars in subsidies to commercial space firms.
However for a former NASA administrator to actively work in the Congress to undermine the policy being presided over by his successor is unprecedented. That Mike Griffin seems to be succeeding is mind boggling. Griffin was unceremoniously let go by the Obama administration and has been savaged on the Internet. However he is a man obviously not to be ignored.
The reason the Griffin is succeeding and that the Obama space policy for NASA has collapsed was explained by Scott Pace, a well respected space policy expert.
“‘On both political and substantive grounds, the administration has handled the NASA human spaceflight side badly,’ he said.
“‘It’s perfectly reasonable for these companies to come out and say why they think they’re going to succeed,’ he said. “But that doesn’t mean the government should take that at face value.'”
In other words, President Obama has carelessly tossed a hand grenade into the US space program, blowing it up, and has not presented a sensible alternative. Unfortunately this means that NASA may well be set adrift until the next President can set things aright.
President Obama could still salvage something. He could call a meeting this week of Congressional space leaders as well as outside experts, such as Pace and Griffin, with also perhaps Norm Augustine whose special committee issued a set of policy options almost a year ago, and try to hash out a plan that makes sense and satisfies the various stakeholders. Otherwise the crippling of NASA, the damaging to the reputation of commercial space, and the cancellation of any near term hope of exploration beyond low Earth orbit will be placed at Obama’s doorstep.
Source: Conflict over NASA spaceflight program complicates funding, Marc Kaufman and Dan Eggen, Washington Post, September 18th, 2010