NASA leader says space budget is more boon than bust

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

NASA wants to spend more than $12 billion over the next five years to develop a rocket engine capable of propelling astronauts into deep space and to fund cutting-edge space technologies, the agency's leader said Thursday.

The presentation by NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. was an attempt to respond to criticism within NASA and on Capitol Hill over the Obama administration's plans to cancel development of the Constellation rocket and spacecraft program, begun under President George W. Bush. That decision has also prompted questions about the current administration's commitment to human space exploration.

Bolden acknowledged that NASA gets less money in 2011 for space operations under Obama's proposed budget because of the Constellation cancellation, but the administrator said his agency received an overall, and quite unusual, increase in funds. He said the president's plan, if passed by Congress, will allow future Americans to travel to Mars, to asteroids and back to the moon.

"We think the president's vision for the future of space exploration, both human and robotic, is pretty dynamic and pretty bold," Bolden said. "The thing that makes it different from any other vision is the fact that it's funded, and is something that is achievable and sustainable."

In canceling the Constellation program, the administration said the project was significantly behind schedule and over budget, and it would initially perform a task -- transporting crew and supplies to the International Space Station -- that Obama thinks is better left to a new generation of commercial space entrepreneurs.

That work has been done by the aging and soon-to-be-ended space shuttles and some Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The Bush administration initially agreed to pay Russia to take over full responsibility for the ISS servicing by next year, and NASA extended that contract this week through 2014.

Many members of Congress, especially those from the Gulf Coast states that house major NASA installations, have said they will work to kill the president's plan and resurrect the Constellation program.

That opposition appeared unabated by Thursday's announcement that NASA centers in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida stand to bring in billions of dollars to develop and oversee the heavy-lift engine and new technologies that will allow astronauts to live longer in space, and spacecraft to refuel in orbit and reach new traveling speeds.

"When we go back into session next week, the budget will be a high priority, and my colleagues and I will continue to educate the rest of Congress on why the decision to kill Constellation is a critical mistake," said Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.), who represents the Johnson Space Center and many of its employees. "The more we talk about this issue, the more bipartisan support we get. I am confident that we will be successful in our mission to reinstate Constellation."

Some jobs may be lost at the Kennedy Space Center and elsewhere with Constellation being canceled, Bolden said, but the overall number of NASA jobs is expected to rise with its increased budget. He did not, however, have estimates yet of future job growth.

Bolden also said the administration was committed to greatly expanding the role of commercial space entrepreneurs, something that he said previous administrations were reluctant to do "or didn't have the courage to do in the past."

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