What's missing from the bold plans for human spaceflight

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Sunday, August 8, 2010

NO ASTEROIDS need apply -- U.S. space policy is on a collision course with itself.

Last year, the Augustine commission found that without an additional $3 billion in funding over the next several years, the Bush administration's Constellation program for manned spaceflight and a return to the moon would be impossible.

So in June, when President Obama released his administration's plan for space, he moved to dismantle Constellation, instead emphasizing international cooperation and arms control, and maintaining mission-essential functions. So far, so good. But the new plan added a manned mission to asteroids and even a visit to Mars by 2025 without allocating more funds for that. This makes little sense. Human spaceflight has always been an inspiring proposition. But it is also costly. And a plan that allocates a smaller percentage of NASA's funds to human spaceflight, yet sets a more ambitious goal, is a poor use of limited resources.

More sensible are other elements of the new plan: increasing NASA's focus on hard science and offering incentives to the commercial sector to develop the capacity to launch astronauts into low Earth orbit. Such incentives would be valuable -- the Obama plan seeks to extend the life of the International Space Station through 2020, and the demise of the shuttle program would leave American astronauts hitching rides with the space flights of other nations. Private contractors already supply the hardware NASA uses; having them perform the launch function, with NASA serving in an appropriate regulatory role, is a logical step.

Meanwhile, Congress is coming up with a plan of its own. Last month, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee unanimously passed a version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that continues elements of the Constellation program -- such as the development of heavy-lift capacity and work on the Orion space capsule -- cuts down funding for commercial human space initiatives to $1.3 billion (less than half of the $3.3 billion in the Obama proposal) and extends the life of the shuttle program. The House just released its version of the bill, with even slimmer incentives for private development of launch capacity.

All three plans for space have in common an unwillingness either to abandon the dream of human spaceflight or to confront the budget reality. But with the funding for NASA set around $19 billion and not likely to change, bold plans for humans in space are simply not feasible. Something must give. If the administration and Congress truly want human spaceflight, they need to fund it adequately. Piecemeal funding that dooms programs to failure is a waste of money -- especially when so many truly vital space functions, from the satellites that supply maps and communications to the telescopes that allow us to glimpse distant worlds, could benefit from such support.


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