By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009
NASA has a space station, three space shuttles, two moon rockets under development, a fleet of robotic space probes, dozens of satellites, tens of thousands of employees and a budget that is creeping toward $20 billion a year. What it needs is a boss.
And one more thing, maybe: a mission that satisfies the new president of the United States.
A respected civil servant, Christopher Scolese, has been serving as acting NASA administrator since the departure on Jan. 20 of Michael D. Griffin. The Obama White House has twice been on the verge of making a formal nomination for a new head of the space agency but has pulled back both times because of grumbling from members of Congress with influence over space policy.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has lobbied openly for the nomination of Marine Gen. Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, but the White House has not seemed eager to oblige the senator.
"I am frustrated, because I don't know what the delay is," Nelson said recently.
One name recently bandied about among the space blogs is that of former congressman Nick Lampson, a Democrat from Texas who lost in November. But Lampson said he has not been contacted about the position: "If they do, indeed, have a plan that might involve asking me to do something, I'd like to at least know what that is."
The White House declines to speak on the matter. NASA press officers and department heads say they do not have a clue when there will be someone new in charge. But the space community says Obama needs to nominate an administrator and a deputy administrator soon, because NASA faces tough decisions on big-ticket items -- space shuttles, moon rockets -- and needs political appointees on the ninth floor at headquarters.
NASA officials are hypersensitive to whatever the Obama administration might say about the agency's strategic direction. The president's initial budget moves seemed to affirm the status quo in a general sense, explicitly endorsing the goal of putting astronauts back on the moon circa 2020. But the budget did not say how that should be accomplished.
Then Obama fogged up the picture during a visit to Central Florida. The president said in an interview, "I think it's fair to say that there's been a sense of drift to our space program over the last several years."
That statement has puzzled many in the space community.
"What does he mean by 'adrift'?" said Scott N. Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. Pace's theory: "It's adrift until the president gets comfortable with it."
With so much uncertainty, the agency has a case of the jitters.
"I think it's a period of high anxiety," said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute. "Their basic mission seems to have been endorsed by the Obama budget proposals. But then he turns around and says the agency seems to be drifting and the new administration will conduct a comprehensive review."
NASA is an agency that thrives on stability. Spaceflight is not something you can extemporize. Missions take many years to plan. NASA sometimes launches a space probe conceived a generation earlier.
One immediate issue involves the space shuttle. Right now, the program is supposed to be shut down at the end of 2010 upon completion of the international space station. Nelson, fearing thousands of lost jobs in Florida, is lobbying to bolster the NASA budget in 2011 by $2.5 billion to allow the shuttle program to continue for at least another year, even if that simply means stretching out the already scheduled flights.
The phaseout of the shuttle is connected to a thornier issue: NASA is constructing a new system for manned spaceflight. The Constellation program features two new rockets, Ares I and Ares V, and a new crew vehicle, Orion. The new spacecraft would be able to carry astronauts to the space station or to the moon.
Constellation, however, is expensive: $44 billion by the time the first astronauts ride on the Ares I rocket to the space station, currently scheduled for March 2015. The Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday that it now appears unlikely Constellation could put astronauts into space before late 2016, but NASA's associate administrator for exploration, Douglas R. Cooke, disagreed with the article, saying the 2015 date is achievable.
Complicating matters is the possibility that a new NASA team might want to change the basic mission framework, choosing to modify existing rockets not yet rated for manned spaceflight. Cooke, however, suggested that it is getting late for that kind of major technological pivot.
"We are pretty far down the road in terms of development," he said.
NASA has gotten a reputation for cost overruns in recent years. Delays or bloating in the Constellation program would be particularly controversial given that the new architecture relies on "off the shelf" technology, which ideally should make costs more predictable.
Another worry for the administration is the upcoming gap in American spaceflight capability between the shutdown of the shuttle and the first Constellation flight. American astronauts will have no option but to hitch rides into space on Russian craft, as they have been doing increasingly since the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster. Stretching out the schedule of the aging shuttle fleet would be costly and raise safety concerns.
A long-standing debate in the space community is whether resources are best devoted to manned spaceflight -- which is expensive and risky -- or to unmanned programs that include robotic space probes, orbiting telescopes and satellites that monitor Earth's environment.
Obama did not pick sides in that debate, saying at a town hall gathering in Florida last month, "I want to review with NASA what are we doing in terms of manned flights to the moon or to Mars versus are we better off using things like Hubble that yields us more information and better bang for the buck."
The president tried to get up to speed on spaceflight in a 25-minute chat recently with astronauts aboard the space station. He asked if they had trouble sleeping when weightless. He asked how long it takes to fly from Earth to the station. He asked how they exercise. And he may have dated himself with one question:
"Do you guys still drink Tang up there?"