As Atlantis Wings Home, Congress Debates NASA's Future

President Obama's 2010 NASA budget provides bolstered spending to complete the space shuttle fleet's last eight missions to the International Space Station in 2010. After that, though, plans are a bit murky for NASA as to the where, when and how of future space travel for the agency.

As the space shuttle Atlantis heads back to Earth after a successful repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, Congress May 19 continued to debate the way forward for NASA. The Hubble mission is NASA's last planned mission to the telescope, and the space shuttle fleet is scheduled for the bolt bucket after eight more missions in 2010 to build out the International Space Station.
After that, plans are a bit murky for NASA as to the where, when and how of future space travel for the agency.
Although NASA has spent almost $7 billion on plans to be back on the moon by 2020, President Obama May 7 ordered a complete review of NASA's operations and direction, including possibly scrapping the proposed lunar space station. Former President Bush ordered the moon program in the aftermath of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.
Others have questioned the operational capability of the new Constellation space exploration system, made up of an Orion capsule and the Ares rocket system, to have a new manned spacecraft ready by 2015. The gap between the 2010 retirement of the space shuttle fleet and Constellation's target date of 2015 (at best), leaves the United States without manned space flight capacity for the first time in 50 years.
NASA is proposing to fill the five-year gap by paying the Russians $1.2 billion to service the International Space Station during the hiatus. NASA claims funds freed from the shuttle fleet's retirement will allow the agency to support development of systems to deliver people and cargo to the ISS and the moon and explore other destinations.
"While I hope and expect that the Human Space Flight Review that is going to be conducted ... will help clarify what is needed to keep that important initiative on track, I think the basic situation is already clear," House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon said May 19. "Either the nation is going to have to give NASA enough funding to meet the dual challenges of carrying out its current and planned missions and of revitalizing the agency's human and physical capital ... or the nation is going to have to agree on what it wants NASA to cut."
Obama has proposed spending $18.69 billion on NASA in 2010, an increase of $903.6 million (5 percent) over funding provided in Bush's last NASA budget. Obama's NASA budget fully funds the remaining shuttle flights and continues funding programs for climate change research, including airborne sensors, computer models and analysis. The budget also continues NASA funding for aeronautical research.
"[Fiscal year 2010] will be a critical year for the agency as it completes the assembly of the ISS, begins the transition away from the Space Shuttle program and continues development of the follow-on human space transportation system that will return Americans to the moon and support other missions beyond low Earth orbit," Gordon said.
Future funding will be largely shaped by Obama's team review of NASA.
"The [review] panel will present its results in time to support an administration decision on the way forward by August 2009," NASA Acting Administrator Chris Scolese told Gordon's committee. "This review of U.S. human space flight plans will examine ongoing and planned NASA human space flight development activities, as well as potential alternatives, and present options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable and sustainable human space flight program in the years following completion of the current space shuttle manifest and retirement."