The continued chaos surrounding the United States space program in the wake of President Obaam’s cancellation of the Constellation space exploration program became evident during a hearing conducted by the Senate Commerce Committee.
Senators from both sides of the aisle accused NASA of not fully implementing the provisions of the NASA Authorization Act that called for the development of the Orion space craft and a shuttle derived heavy lift launch vehicle, as well as funding President Obama’s commercial space initiative. NASA witnesses, including White House Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Robinson, blamed the delays on budget uncertainty. Congress has yet to pass an appropriations bill funding NASA.
Ironically, the schedule woes encountered by the Constellation program were blamed on budget shortfalls. Critics of the space exploration program claimed that it was “unsustainable,” translated as being too expensive for Congress to fund. What continued budget uncertainty suggests about the new plan has so far been left unsaid.
The FY 2011 NASA funding bill could be the $19 billion that Congress authorized, $18.7 billion; which was the level last year; or even the $17.4 billion of 2008 levels. The latter funding level would happen if Congress cuts NASA funding as part of a deficit-reduction measure.
The hearing featured accusations from both sides. Senators accused NASA of slow walking the development of the shuttle derived heavy lift launcher and the Orion space craft.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Senator Bill Nelson was particularly caustic in his assessment of NASA and the Obama administration’s behavior:
“Nelson said the Senate had received word that NASA and ‘other parts of the administration’ were working to undermine the law – which aims to replace the retiring space shuttle with a new ‘heavy lift’ rocket and crew capsule – and instead pursue Obama’s earlier plans that focused more on technology development. However, he offered no definitive examples or proof.”
Nelson, who is up for reelection in 2012, is particularly vulnerable as Florida space workers have been angered by the cancellation of Constellation.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was equally blunt:
“‘If it is dragged out and we don’t have a design’ for the new family of rockets, according to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas), ‘we could lose the whole’ effort to stay ahead of other countries in manned exploration of space.”
Hutchison is also up for reelection in 2012, though it is uncertain whether she will actually run again. Texas space workers are just as angry about the Obama space policy.
Both the Senate and NASA witnesses agreed that budget uncertainties were exacerbating the difficulties NASA is facing following Congress’s direction. One area that may be cut is a program to improve launch facilities at the Kennedy Space Center, with the money to be added back in a subsequent fiscal year.
The tensions between Congress, the Obama White House, and NASA illustrate the continued chaos caused by the cancellation of the Constellation space exploration program, around which a political consensus has formed, and its replacement by a controversial program that feeds government subsidies to commercial space companies and a rump, space exploration program the nature of which is vaguely defined and the goals of which are uncertain.
The Obama White House, reeling from the results of the 2010 midterm elections and its wider agenda under attack by a resurgent Republican Party, has been all but silent on space policy. The future of human space flight and the direction of NASA itself remain uncertain and adrift.
Sources: Nelson: Obama administration is not ‘helping’ NASA, Mark K. Matthews, Orlando Sentinel, December 1st, 2010
Senators Say NASA Isn’t Implementing Programs, Andy Pasztor, Wall Street Journal, December 2nd, 2010