NASA Space Flight Funding Plan Stymies Congress, Obama Administration

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 coast.

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 sustainable.

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 Coast."

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 space.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...