Politicians question NASA's future manned space flight plans


Republican members of a key technology committee today expressed concern over the future plan for NASA's manned space flights.

 Specifically the politicians expressed concerns over insufficient funding to develop the next generation manned launch vehicle in a timely manner after the Space Shuttle retires.  Such doubts are not situated on the Republican side of the aisle however as similar concerns were expressed by a number Democrats at a hearing last week with Dr. John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, according to a release

The Committee on Science and Technology hearing was taking a look at the  Fiscal Year 2010 (FY10) National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Budget Request.

"NASA is one area of the federal budget where I think some increases are justified," said Science and Technology Committee Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX). "I am very concerned that priorities may be shifting away from human space exploration at a very critical time."

Recognizing the difficult choices NASA faces and an overall lack of direction thus far from the White House, Hall expressed concerns with the lack of NASA funding in the budget.  "While NASA has made tremendous progress over the past five years, it is still on a path to retire the Space Shuttle without having developed its replacement vehicle and launch capabilities," Hall noted.  "Further, this budget reduces the out-year funding for the Constellation system by more than $3 billion, and even though we are more than a hundred days into the Administration, the President has still not appointed a head of NASA."

According to a release,  NASA's proposed FY10 budget is $18.7 billion, an increase of 5.1% over the enacted FY09 appropriation for NASA, but the budget projection beyond FY10 is essentially flat through FY13. Several members of the committee expressed concern that this budget has deleted nearly all of the out-year funding for the Altair Lunar Lander and for the heavy-lift Ares 5 rocket necessary to support exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit.

Acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese said in Government Executive.com that  funding would let the space program build the Constellation system, which could reach low-earth orbit and service the ISS, but not the follow-on system able to meet the goal of returning to the moon by 2020.

NASA plans to fly the remaining Shuttle missions, including an additional flight to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the Space Station before retiring the Shuttle. The Orion and Ares 1 are not expected to be ready before 2015. In the resulting gap, the US stands to lose a highly skilled workforce and a number of accompanying parts suppliers and other contractors, while making cash payments to Russia to ferry our astronauts to and from the International Space Station, the committee stated.

Such gnashing of teeth is only going to get worse as NASA budget and future are debated. In addition, the White House science office last week it would set up a panel of experts to conduct a wide-ranging review the future of human space flight.

The "Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans"  will be led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin and will examine ongoing and planned NASA development activities, as well as potential alternatives, and offer options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program in the years following Space Shuttle retirement, the White House stated in a release. 

The panel, whose other member are unnamed at the moment, will work closely with NASA and will seek input from Congress, the White House, the public, industry, and international partners as it develops options.  The panel should reach some conclusions by August 2009.

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