Obama's NASA plans may be in trouble

May 07, 2010 By Mark K. Matthews and Robert Block

President Barack Obama's grand plans for NASA appear in big trouble. Three weeks after Obama told an audience at Kennedy Space Center that he wants to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025, Congress remains unconvinced, largely because Obama's proposal also puts commercial rocket companies in charge of getting astronauts to the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired this year.

Few Democrats have publicly endorsed the entire plan, while opponents such as Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, who looks after the interests of NASA's Marshall Flight Center in Huntsville, continue to blast the proposal as "unrealistic" and "destructive."

itself also appears to be hedging its bets that the president's vision might not pass muster with Congress. KSC officials and contractors, under direction from Johnson Space Center and Charlie Bolden, are pressing ahead with plans for test flights of a multibillion-dollar Ares I rocket that Obama wants to cancel.

Meanwhile, big aerospace contractors are trying to sell members of Congress on a new $8 billion rocket that could be fashioned from pieces of the space shuttle, which is supposed to be retired later this year. Last week, a group of contractors led by aerospace giant Boeing Co. met Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to push the new rocket idea. Nelson previously has backed more Ares test flights.

Although there is little unity in Congress on what to do next, most experts agree it could stall -- or even derail -- White House aims to retire the shuttle and to cancel NASA's long-standing plans to return astronauts to the moon.

"Purgatory is exactly the right word," said John Logsdon, a space expert at George Washington University. The White House can't marshal support to quickly pass the new NASA policy, while opponents have been unable to get enough traction to kill it outright.

"The only thing ... is that purgatory was a waiting period with a guaranteed outcome. The people in purgatory were going to go to heaven," said Logsdon, who noted the Obama space plan does not come with a similar guarantee.

At this point, the new NASA policy has stalled in Congress and could remain so until the end of the year, according to Capitol Hill aides and industry sources. In the meantime, lawmakers and NASA officials are busy studying alternatives.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, whose Florida district includes KSC, wants NASA to "slow the flight rate of the remaining (three) missions" and add at least one more so shuttles could fly through 2012, according to a recent letter she sent to media. Although described as a "great champion" by Obama when he visited the center, Kosmas still isn't satisfied with his plan.

Key is what to do with Constellation, a spacecraft program that has consumed more than $9 billion in federal funds during the past five years.

When first conceived, NASA had planned on using its Ares rockets and Orion capsule to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. But financial and technical woes have made that goal impossible, and Obama wants to cancel everything in Constellation but the crewed Orion capsule so that NASA could focus on new technology that could enable a future asteroid mission.

Several lawmakers, however, are pushing to save the Ares rocket, and a top NASA official recently drew up plans to continue all of Constellation in case Congress does not approve the Obama policy. Shelby has helped lead the charge, as his state was tasked with the bulk of Ares work.

Even Nelson, who described Obama's speech at KSC as "visionary," has advocated continued Ares rocket testing because it could mean a few hundred jobs at the center, which is set to lose as many as 9,000 workers once the shuttle completes its final three missions.

Much of the gridlock over Obama's plan can be traced back to one sentence inserted by Shelby into a spending bill last year that bars NASA from canceling Constellation programs this year without congressional approval. Not only has that sentence prevented NASA from quickly switching to Obama's new plan, but it also has given Congress time to kill his proposal and save Constellation.

Indeed, the tactic has proven so effective that lawmakers loyal to Constellation are considering a similar move in upcoming spending bills. That possibility has bureaucrats on both sides of the issue combing through thick pages of appropriations measures to ensure that the other doesn't gain ground.

With such scrutiny, the issue may not be decided until Congress ultimately approves its 2011 budget -- which may not happen until the winter holiday season.

Still, the president isn't entirely helpless. If Congress wraps most or all of its spending bills into one package as it has done in recent years, then he could lean on top leaders in the House and Senate to give cover to his space plan.

White House officials, however, said Wednesday that they were making headway in convincing Congress to support Obama's space plan and were optimistic. "We will continue to work closely with NASA and the Congress in the weeks and months ahead so that we can work as swiftly as possible to advance this bold and ambitious new space policy," said Moira Mack, White House spokeswoman.

Matthews reported Washington and Block from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Explore further: Lunar explorers will walk at higher speeds than thought

3.7 /5 (3 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA to get more money, but must scratch moon plan

Jan 28, 2010

(AP) -- President Barack Obama is essentially grounding efforts to return astronauts to the moon and instead is sending NASA in new directions with roughly $6 billion more, according to officials familiar with the plans.

NASA: Good night moon, hello new rocket technology

Feb 01, 2010

(AP) -- President Barack Obama is redirecting America's space program, killing NASA's $100 billion plans to return astronauts to the moon and using much of that money for new rocket technology research.

Senator may have won fight over private rocket manufacturing

Jul 03, 2009

For months, a powerful Republican senator from Alabama has fought the Obama administration to block $150 million that the White House wanted to spend to help private companies build rockets capable of reaching the international ...

Recommended for you

The latest observations of interstellar particles

20 minutes ago

With all the news about Voyager 1 leaving the heliosphere and entering interstellar space you might think that the probe is the first spacecraft to detect interstellar particles. That isn't entirely true, ...

Hepatitis C virus proteins in space

30 minutes ago

Two researchers at Technische Universität München have won the 'International Space Station Research Competition' with their project 'Egypt Against Hepatitis C Virus.' As their prize, the scientists will ...

Very Long Baseline Array takes radio image of Voyager 1

1 hour ago

The image above is a radio image of Voyager 1. It was taken from the Very Long Baseline Array, which is a collection of 10 radio telescopes scattered from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands. It captures the faint ...

Lunar explorers will walk at higher speeds than thought

15 hours ago

Anyone who has seen the movies of Neil Armstrong's first bounding steps on the moon couldn't fail to be intrigued by his unusual walking style. But, contrary to popular belief, the astronaut's peculiar walk ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rwinners
not rated yet May 07, 2010
So congress doesn't want to loose control of these purse strings. What's new about this?