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Conflict over NASA spaceflight program complicates funding

NASA politics have become both more personal and more focused on where jobs will be won or lost this year. The head of the House authorization subcommittee that supported Constellation is Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is married to an astronaut. Astronauts are deeply divided on the Constellation-vs.-private-space debate, but the headlines went to Apollo pioneers such as Neil Armstrong, who strongly opposed Obama's plans.

Meanwhile, budget hawks such as Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) went on the warpath against Obama's limited privatizing proposals, in part, at least, to keep NASA government jobs at NASA facilities in their states. And Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) , a liberal on most issues, held a fundraiser in Alabama last year, reportedly organized with the help of Shelby, as the Constellation battle was first brewing.

Opponents of the Obama plan have sought to make Elon Musk, founder of the start-up rocket company Space-X, into the villain of the piece. When Griffin was NASA administrator, Musk competed for and won a contract to provide cargo to the international space station, and his company successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket in June.

Musk's political donations - about $150,000 since 2003 - to Obama and other Democrats have become an issue, but campaign records show they are matched by contributions to Republicans. They are also dwarfed by campaign donations from large aerospace companies such as Lockheed and ATK that could lose under the Obama plan.

'Propaganda war'

"It's been quite a propaganda war," said Musk, who complained that Shelby refused to even meet with him. "You know there is something strange going on when Republicans, who ostensibly should be pro-privatization, are arguing as though they are from the Soviet Politburo. There's something wrong with that picture."

Scott Pace, a Bush-era NASA official who now serves as director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, said the fault lies elsewhere.

"On both political and substantive grounds, the administration has handled the NASA human spaceflight side badly," he said.

"It's perfectly reasonable for these companies to come out and say why they think they're going to succeed," he said. "But that doesn't mean the government should take that at face value."

Given the attacks on Musk and his company, the Senate compromise funding commercial space efforts passed only after Boeing gave congressional staffers a detailed presentation about its own space plans, participants in the negotiations said. The company announced an agreement last week to develop commercial space taxis for the space station.

Unlike conventional NASA contracts - which are "cost plus," meaning they can and do grow substantially in cost - the commercial contracts do not have the "cost plus" provisions and so are expected to be considerably cheaper.

Meanwhile, the current House version of the NASA budget bill calls for spending more than $900 million in the next three years to buy transport to the space station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft after the space shuttle is grounded next year. The bill would spend half of that for commercial spaceflight.

A group of Nobel laureates, former NASA officials and astronauts wrote a recent public letter to Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the NASA authorizing committee in the House, saying, "NASA should invest far more in America's launch industry than it invests in Russia's launch industry, but the current House Science Committee authorization bill fails this test."

In an effort to restore a NASA consensus and fund future human space travel, negotiators from the House and Senate have been meeting frequently in recent weeks. Participants say, however, that the sides are dug in and that stalemate is a real possibility.

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