NASA's new plan: Technology comes before the destination

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; 1:00 PM

NASA has a brand-new strategy for human space flight. But now it needs to decide where to go.

The dramatic decision by the Obama administration to kill NASA's Constellation program, and with it the plan to send astronauts back to the moon to create a lunar base, has incited controversy across the space industry. It has also create a swarm of uncertainties. The old NASA strategy set a destination first, and developed technology -- rockets and a crew capsule -- to get there. The new strategy calls for pouring billions into space technologies without defining the destination.

The idea is to create technological flexibility so that astronauts could potentially visit a variety of locations in the inner solar system, including the moon, near-Earth asteroids and possibly Mars or the moons of Mars. The "Flexible Path" strategy was favored by the advisory panel appointed last year by President Obama to review NASA's options.

The NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, a former astronaut appointed by Obama to run the agency, Tuesday denied that NASA's future has become nebulous.

"We are now going to have the national debate about where we should be going in space exploration," Bolden said at the National Press Club. "For any of you who think we are abandoning human space flight, I just respectfully disagree. . . . We are not drifting."

NASA officials say they want the agency to become an engine of innovation. The Obama budget funnels $6 billion over five years to an effort to create a commercial taxi that would carry astronauts to the international space station. But the budget does not come close to providing the additional $3 billion a year that the advisory panel said NASA needed to create a robust human space flight program.

Michael Griffin, who led NASA to the final moment of the Bush administration, and who was the leading champion of the Constellation program, said Tuesday that the agency has never been primarily in the technology development business.

"It's a stupid strategy," Griffin said. "You have to decide what it is you want to do, and then you go after the technology required to do it. It is not a productive or efficient strategy to decide that, first, I'm going to develop technology, and then I'll figure out where to use it."

Bolden acknowledged that the termination of Constellation is painful for many NASA employees and contractors.

"To people who are working on these programs, this is like a death in the family. Everybody needs to understand that," Bolden said. "We need to give them time to grieve. We need to give them time to recover."

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