WASHINGTON — Congress and the White House have signaled that they envision sharply different futures for NASA and its manned space mission.
At an aerospace luncheon, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said President Barack Obama wants the agency to embrace “more international cooperation” after the space-shuttle era ends in 2010 and hinted that its Constellation moon-rocket program could see major changes.
“We are going to be fighting and fussing over the coming year,” Bolden told an audience of aerospace executives and lobbyists Wednesday. “Some of you are not going to like me, because we are not going to do the same kind of things we’ve always done.”
But hours earlier, congressional appropriators reached a different conclusion, approving legislative language declaring that any change to Constellation, which aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 but is running well behind schedule, must first get the approval of Congress.
That language, inserted by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., should pass this month as part of a nearly $450 billion omnibus appropriations bill. It would require NASA to spend nearly $4 billion on the program this fiscal year, effectively tying Obama’s hands as he attempts to forge a new NASA policy that is likely to cancel Constellation’s Ares I rocket.
According to industry sources, U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., also signed off on the language, at the urging of U.S. Reps. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Mollohan heads the appropriations subcommittee that handles NASA, while Gordon and Giffords have oversight responsibility for the agency.
“They are at an impasse,” said space historian Roger Launius of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “And unless the White House levels enough pressure, Congress could prevail.”
A checkmate is exactly what Shelby wants, as the veteran lawmaker has been a ceaseless protector of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and its thousands of Constellation-related jobs.
A lengthy deadlock, however, would only add to uncertainty after the final flight of the shuttle.
As it stands, the U.S. must rely on Russia to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station for most of the next decade. Further delay could extend that reliance even longer. Meanwhile, Kennedy Space Center, responsible for launching crewed NASA rockets, would lose thousands of jobs that might never come back.
“The president is committed to the continued success of the nation’s space program and will continue to work with Congress toward that goal,” White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai said.
Aerospace-industry officials with close ties to the administration say Obama intends to press ahead with his plans. A decision, they say, could be made by as early as next week, although it might not be announced until later this month.
According to insiders, the White House is looking at four options, each of which would scrap Ares I, dramatically revise Constellation and start new programs allowing commercial space companies to carry humans to the space station. All would be blocked by the latest move by Congress.
Since 2004, NASA has spent more than $8 billion developing Constellation and aims to spend an additional $3.5 billion in 2010 to continue building Ares I and the Orion crew capsule, and designing the Ares V heavy-lift rocket. But the program has been underfunded and has run into both financial and technical problems. The first crewed Ares I launch is not likely before 2017 — or seven years after the shuttle is retired next year.
A presidential-review panel suggested in October that NASA rely on commercial rockets to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, leaving the agency to concentrate its efforts on working with other countries to develop a space program capable of exploring the solar system. The committee, led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, also said NASA should get up to $3 billion more in funding annually.
But NASA allies in Congress largely have rejected the committee’s suggestion of alternatives and instead have focused on getting NASA more money. One key reason is jobs, as changes to Constellation likely would reduce the number of workers at NASA centers, especially Alabama, where the Ares rockets are designed.
“Without the Ares I and heavy-lift capability of the Ares V rockets, we will relinquish our leadership in space. Our goals for manned space exploration have always been, and always will be, accomplished through the people of Marshall Space Flight Center,” Shelby said.
But more money for NASA is improbable in the face of a $1.4 trillion federal deficit. Administration officials said NASA’s 2011 budget is unlikely to be more than its proposed 2010 budget of $18.7 billion.
The budget situation is one reason the White House is seeking foreign partners as alternatives to Constellation, as well as the possibility of using NASA as a form of “soft power” on the global stage.
In his speech to industry officials, Bolden said that Obama told him to use NASA as a way to reach out to new partners, including China, one of only three countries that have launched astronauts into space. The others are the U.S. and Russia.
“We are going to reach out to what I call nontraditional partners. And I can say that with confidence because the president has told me to do that,” said Bolden, who has said little about the agency’s future since taking office nearly six months ago.
“There are not a lot of things I can tell you with certainty. But I can tell you, he said, ‘Do that.’ “
Congress, which has long seen China’s civil space program as an extension of its military, is not likely to be pleased.