News Analysis: Balking at the Obama administration's proposal to put NASA's manned space flight development program on hold for the next five years at least, Congress calls on the House Committee on Science and Technology for a compromise plan to keep NASA in the manned space exploration business.
The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies
Appropriations voted June 29 to withhold all funding for the Obama
administration's manned space plans, and to refer the problem to the House
Committee on Science and Technology.
The White House's plans for NASA's manned space program have been
encountering strong objections from both Democrats and Republicans. Members of
Congress have repeatedly said the White House and Congress need to find a way
to pay for continued space exploration by NASA.
The current plans would effectively gut NASA's manned space program,
eliminate planned manned-rated heavy-lift boosters and only direct long-term
funding for manned space flight to private industry. In addition, the
administration has delayed any decision on government-funded heavy-lift booster
development programs for at least five years. In the meantime, NASA's current space
shuttle fleet would be retired and any travel to the International Space
Station would be either outsourced to startup space launch companies or to the
Russian space program, or would simply be eliminated.
The opposition in Congress has been partly driven by high-profile testimony
from experts and astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the
first two humans to land on the moon. In addition, members of Congress,
especially in the economically hard-hit Gulf states, fear that the elimination
of an effective manned space program by NASA would be a serious blow to their
economies, already reeling from the BP oil leak that is throwing thousands of
people out of work and shutting down a wide range of businesses along the
The effects of killing NASA's manned space effort have been estimated to include
the loss of between 6,000 and 10,000 skilled jobs in the region, mostly from
the ranks of engineers and technical workers, with thousands more jobs being
lost in an economic ripple effect.
Most of the states along the gulf have large Republican constituencies. However,
opposition to the move to end NASA's role in manned spaceflight isn't limited
to the GOP. The issue is broadly bipartisan, resulting in a letter from 60 members
of Congress to the president asking for a compromise plan that would allow
NASA's spaceflight programs to continue at some level.
Meanwhile, House and Senate committees are trying to reach consensus with
the White House on bills that would support the administration's efforts to
develop a robust commercial manned space capability, while also continuing
NASA's role in space flight, at least until the commercial efforts are
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has established a task
force on the space industry workforce
with a Website seeking comment on the
White House plans. Currently the site consists mainly of old news releases and
announcements from earlier in 2010 and 2009. However, it's being promoted by
the White House as the first step in saving the economies of the "Space
The administration has found some friendly voices in the crowd. Television
personality Bill Nye, incoming head of the Planetary Society, supports the new
direction, according to statements released by the organization. However, the
new direction is barely off the ground.
Two private companies, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, have launched payloads
for NASA. The big aerospace players, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have
been routinely launching unmanned payloads for years. Boeing is said to be
going after the manned launch business for NASA, although it has yet to test-fly
any spacecraft designed for manned missions.
In fact, the only companies that have managed to launch a person into space
are Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, and that spacecraft is designed for
the suborbital tourist trade. A number of other companies are aiming at the same
market, and while they're raising interest in manned space travel, they can't
yet provide ways to travel even as far as the ISS.
At this point, however, Congress hasn't bought into the plans for reduced
NASA involvement in manned space flight, nor has it voted on the five-year
moratorium on the development of a NASA heavy-lift capability. While there are
other spacecraft in existence that can potentially carry people to the ISS and
maybe even beyond that, they are either unproven or they belong to Russia.
While there's little doubt that the current versions of the Atlas and Delta
boosters could carry people into space-after all, it was an Atlas predecessor
that carried the Mercury capsules into orbit-it's not clear that they have the
ability to provide the heavy lift that's required for a robust presence in
As a result, Congress is paralyzed, on one hand opposing plans to cut back
on the manned space program and on the other lacking consensus as to the
direction that NASA should take. Complicating this is the current economy and
massive budget deficits, a situation that leaves Congress caught between laying
off thousands of workers and funding an expensive program in difficult times.
The outcome has, if anything, become less clear over the last year of
inaction. About the only thing that is clear is that despite its best efforts,
the Obama administration has met a Congress that's firmly opposed to its stated
direction, but which has failed to decide on a direction of its own.