NASA faces deadline for tough decisions on shuttle

Apr 22, 2009 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
FILE - This April 8, 2009 file photo shows John Holdren talking about his role as President Obama's science adviser during an interview with The Associated Press, in Washington. Holdren has said that crucial decisions on whether to continue with George W. Bush's schedule to retire the space shuttle in 2010 and launch a replacement five years later won't be made until NASA gets a new chief. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

(AP) -- NASA is facing a critical deadline to make its biggest decision in a generation: whether to go forward with plans to retire the space shuttle fleet and replace it with a new mode of space travel. But the agency still has no chief to make the $230 billion call.

NASA seems so far off the White House radar, said one presidential expert, that it might as well be on Pluto.

"As each day goes by, the need for these decisions becomes greater and greater, and the absence of an administrator becomes more and more an issue," said John Logsdon, a member of the NASA Advisory Council who also advised President Barack Obama's campaign.

Obama's science adviser has said that crucial decisions on the shuttle and a new spacecraft to carry back to the moon will not be made until NASA gets a new administrator. In an interview two weeks ago, John Holdren did not know when that would be.

A key deadline is April 30, when a congressional rule governing the shuttle's infrastructure expires. After that date, NASA will be free to start taking apart the shuttle program if it chooses.

But some in Congress want the shuttle to fly longer because retiring the fleet would force the U.S. to rely on Russia for trips to space for nearly five years. Obama has said he wants at least one more shuttle flight beyond those already planned.

And that's not all. A Congressional Budget Office report concluded that NASA cannot carry out its current plans on its existing budget. The report outlined options that include delaying the flight of the new spacecraft, spending more money to meet the current schedule or drastically cutting back on science.

NASA also has an extra $1 billion in stimulus money, but little direction in how to spend it.

In past new administrations, the lack of a permanent boss might not have been such a big concern. The space program has typically focused on shuttle flights needed to complete construction of the .

But NASA today is in the early stages of a once-in-a-generation transition that will affect how Americans get into space and where they go. No other federal agency has faced such a large financial decision without a permanent chief.

A report last month by the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, said the program that would replace the shuttle, return humans to the moon and perhaps send them to Mars is expected to cost more than $230 billion.

So far, the Obama administration has nominated nearly 200 officials, including an undersecretary of agriculture for rural development, an assistant labor secretary for veterans employment and training, and actor Kal Penn as a White House liaison. But at NASA, Obama has not nominated a single manager who requires Senate confirmation.

"I think that tells you something," said New York University public policy professor Paul Light, an expert in presidential appointments. "The lack of announced appointees is a sign of its priority within the administration."

And how low is NASA?

"NASA has got Pluto status right now," Light said. "As you know Pluto is no longer considered a planet."

It's tough to find a good NASA administrator even in the best of times because NASA is the government's third-largest source of contracts to industry. That makes finding someone without a conflict of interest difficult, Light said, and right now the economy is a higher priority.

"Some major decisions have to be made," said Jack Burns, another member of the NASA Advisory Council and a planetary science professor at the University of Colorado. "And there isn't too much time."

Burns said that in February.

NASA could continue down the path set by President George W. Bush and retire the shuttle by Oct. 1, 2010, choosing instead to pour money into new space vehicles that would be ready sometime in 2015.

If the White House does not order changes, NASA would probably begin dismantling parts of the shuttle program on May 1, according to George Washington University space policy director Scott Pace, a former NASA official in the Bush administration.

The space agency declined to say whether it would do so, but it did say that retiring the shuttle "is a matter of national policy."

In his brief budget request in February, Obama said he would fly the shuttle through 2010 and continue with plans to go to the moon. He did not get into specifics about the somewhat controversial design of new moon-mission .

The space agency could scrap or delay the retirement plans and change or dump the new spaceship system.

"My expectation is that NASA will be given marching orders and that they won't be the same as that of the Bush administration," said Rice University physicist Neal Lane, White House science adviser to President Bill Clinton. "They are still working on the old plan, and the clock is ticking."

So what will NASA do?

NASA referred questions to the White House, but acting Administrator Chris Scolese did say in a statement: "All NASA missions and programs are proceeding uninterrupted."

The White House would not answer specific questions about the space agency's future.

"The White House is fully engaged with ," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in an e-mail. "As with all government agencies, it is important that NASA's programs are properly matched to available resources."

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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User comments : 7

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tealeebee
not rated yet Apr 22, 2009
One day, "USA" might be the abbreviation of "Universal Space Administration." Perhaps Obama wants to weaken the superstructure that supports NASA's nationalistic affiliation (by name, Cold War heritage and behaviour) so that it's easier to transcend into such a grand organization...well, that's an optimistic viewpoint, at least!
gopher65
not rated yet Apr 22, 2009
Or Obama is just being lazy. That sounds more like it to me.
robbycoats
not rated yet Apr 23, 2009
Want to go to the moon? Abolish NASA right now and leave it to the private sector and people like Burt Ruttan.
gopher65
not rated yet Apr 23, 2009
robbycoats: Corporations are absolutely fantastic at short term projects. Governments cannot match them in any way shape or form. But corps are also completely incapable of engaging in a long term project.

There is a very good reason for this. If I offer to give you 1000 dollars now, or 1000 dollars 50 years from now, which will you pick? The answer is obvious, you'd pick to take the money now. So would everyone.

That is the same choice that investors are faced with every day. Do they invest in a short term project that will get them money immediately (say... Clean Coal), or do they invest in a long term project that will help out humanity in the long run (say... Fusion), but won't get them a return on their investment for decades?

For the vast majority of inventors, the answer is obvious: money, *now*. There are very few people that feel that they have money to burn. Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft, and funder of The Allen Array) is such a person, and perhaps Burt Ruttan is as well. But there aren't nearly enough people like that in big business to fund all of the science that needs to be funded. And there isn't enough short term profit in such science for profit seekers to take the plunge and invest (or in exploration for that matter).

That's why government funding is needed. Even companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic aren't running completely without government funding.
gopher65
not rated yet Apr 23, 2009
To add to my previous comment:

Because of this, what really *should* be done is to have government act in only one research/exploration capacity: trailblazing. For the reason outlined above corporations simply cannot trailblaze new ideas or industries on their own. When they try to do so their investors/shareholders revolt and replace the executives of the company. But they're great at short term projects.

So the obvious solution is to have governments invest only in largescale new things that aren't currently being done. Examples: setting up lunar colonies, fusion research, interstellar capabilities.

Things like that won't be profitable for decades or even centuries, but governments can afford to take losses for loooong periods of time in a way that corporations cannot.

Then, once a new concept or industry has been trailblazed by the government, and the basic infrastructure has been set up, it should be turned completely over to corporations, and the government should redirect its efforts to something new.

A good example of this is LEO (Low Earth Orbit). Corporations can get things to LEO just fine. There is no reason for any government investment into *current* LEO technology (now if they want to work on a new method of getting to LEO, such as space elevators or a new type of propulsion, that'd be fine). NASA should not have it's own intrinsic ability to get into LEO, and neither should anyone else. They should simply inform the industry of their needs, and it should be up to the industry to sweat out how to achieve those goals.
Zeph
5 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2009
@gopher65: Your points about the differing payoff timescales is appropriate, but I believe you may need to refine your concepts somewhat. In the US for example, corporations build almost all of the space infrastructure even when the funding is via governments. Corporation vs Government is not the significant factor. The distuishing characteristic is whether the funding of a corporate project comes from private investors seeking to maximize their own(short and medium term) returns on investment - like satellite television; or from public funds directed towards some goal intended to benefit the public as a whole (at least in the optimal situation, in both cases).

Follow the money - where does it come from, and what is the expected payoff. Corporations (well, actually just any large for-profit institutions, whether a publicly traded corporation like GE or a privately held operation like Halliburton) can effectively mobilize talent and resources to accomplish a defined goal - like building a rocket engine, whether for the Shuttle Program or Burt Rutan.

The difference to keep your eye on is who definines that goals (the customer) for what purpose, not in who is building the hardware; the latter will largely be the same businesses either way.

Whether or not your blanket prescription of turning everything over to private industry after the trailblazing stage makes sense will depend on what those goals are. If a government's goal is to establish LEO space industry (to support job creation and economic growth or as background for a national defense industrial base or whatever), then blazing a road to be turned over to private industry would make total sense. If the goal was, say, building orbital surveillance systems, then the government would logically remain the customer driving that LEO system. It's a case by case thing based on purposes, not an automatic transition. And likewise, if the government has no goals it wishes to fund, private industry may need to fund and organize its own trailblazing in some area, without government subsidy.

Within a well defined space (like mass producing airplane engines), private industry tends to be more efficient than government owned and operated facilities (which is why the government hires them rather than doing it themselves). But in terms of setting the goals for where the country (or the world) should be in 20 years, you are correct that private investment is by and large far to myopic and governements - even with their limitations - are about our only choice. Hopefully democratic governments, who tend overall to factor in the welfare of a larger segment of the population in setting their goals - and can be influenced by informed citizens.
gopher65
not rated yet Apr 28, 2009
Zeph: I completely agree with everything you said. Personally when I talk about a "public" endevour, I'm not talking about something that was only done using government labour, but rather something that was accomplished through public money. For instance in Canada the Health Care Industry is mostly government funded, but a substantial amount of the actual labour involved (about 30% the last time I checked) is done by wholly privately owned an operated corporations. It's the money (and thus management direction) that comes from the government, not necessarily the labour or technical skill.

My above statements were intended to demonstrate a general idea, not to be applied to any specific circumstance. Each situation needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis.