Congress's budget battle leaves NASA without a clear mission

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

AMERICA'S SPACEFLIGHT program is about to enter a vacuum: a vacuum of vision. Even with expected passage of a resolution to provide NASA with its annual operating budget, it appears increasingly unlikely that Congress will be able to provide a guiding mission for NASA before it adjourns.

Congressional objections have sidelined President Obama's space proposal. He wanted to end the Constellation manned spaceflight program, focus on research and international cooperation, encourage commercial spaceflight with a $3 billion investment -- and pursue more far-fetched plans to visit Mars. In place of that are two competing visions from the House and Senate.

The Senate version of the NASA appropriations bill, now under consideration by the House, preserves elements of the Constellation program and allocates $1.6 billion to encourage private space-launch capacity. A compromise bill that failed to make it to the floor highlighted the problems of the Senate bill, an oddly specific plan in which members of Congress took it upon themselves to specify the exact contours of the U.S. plan for space -- contours that often seem to conform to district and state lines. Among other concerns, the Senate bill mandates that the shuttle program be continued through the remainder of 2011 without setting aside funds for this purpose and specifically insists on the development of heavy-lift rockets.

This flawed bill only proves that the biggest challenges now facing NASA are on the ground. Members of Congress, hoping to protect jobs in their districts, have fought against the shutdown of the Constellation manned spaceflight program, which a blue-ribbon commission on the future of human spaceflight found to be doomed by excessive ambition and insufficient funds.

Without further funding, the commission warned, such a program was not feasible. More funding, in the current economic climate, will not be forthcoming. And simply continuing to provide funding at a level already determined to be inadequate is wasteful.

In these straitened economic times, there is little logic to support an ambitious -- and ambitiously underfunded -- plan for NASA that continues its heavy-lift rocket programs, allocates a limited amount of funding for commercial spaceflight and keeps NASA's eyes lifted to the dream of manned flight beyond low-Earth orbit.

A better compromise would allow NASA to invest in research and aeronautics and to salvage technology, expertise and resources from the Constellation program, and use them to develop capacity for a time when America is in a better position to aim upward.

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