Obama plan to end much of Constellation program angers Republican senators

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

NASA's administrator faced sharp and often hostile criticism and questioning from Republican senators Thursday as he defended President Obama's plan to dramatically change the agency's human space exploration program.

Under that plan, NASA would end much of the Constellation program, begun under President George W. Bush, and rely on the burgeoning commercial space industry to provide transport to and from the international space station. NASA would focus instead on designing and building a new rocket and space capsule that could take astronauts into deep space and ultimately to Mars.

In scrapping large parts of the Constellation program, however, Obama has outraged lawmakers from Gulf Coast states and Utah, where contracts and jobs may be lost.

In a meeting Thursday of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) accused Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. and NASA on Thursday of ceding space exploration to the "Russians, the Chinese and even the Indians," and he accused the administration of setting up a "welfare program for commercial space industry."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said NASA is "relying too heavily on commercial entrepreneurs" who she said would not be ready to send astronauts into space anytime soon.

Bolden said the administration would like to return astronauts to deep space sooner than under the Constellation plan.

Bolden also told senators that commercial spacecraft would have to meet the same safety standards as future NASA vehicles.

Responding to questioning from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the committee chairman, Bolden said that the agency is putting together a manual to share with commercial companies about how to "man-rate" their vehicles, and that it should be available by the end of the year. Some companies have said they could have rockets and spacecraft ready to carry astronauts within three years of getting a go-ahead.

"I guarantee that before we put any vehicle into space, there will be one safety standard for taking astronauts from this planet to anywhere else," Bolden said.

A group of space experts, former astronauts and space advocates voiced support for Obama's plan Thursday in a teleconference organized by the Planetary Society, the world's largest private space organization.

The speakers, who included three-time Hubble repair astronaut John Grunsfeld, Bill Nye "The Science Guy" and George Washington University space policy expert John Logsdon, said the Obama plan is significantly superior to the Constellation program.

Louis Freidman, executive director and co-founder of the Planetary Society, said that Obama's willingness to propose new pathways and destinations is a sign of American leadership.

"This plan would take Americans out to near-Earth asteroids, to deep space and to Mars -- destinations that other nations are not even contemplating," he said. "These would be capabilities Constellation didn't have."

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