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Jupiter launcher
What form NASA’s heavy-lift launch vehicle will take, and when it will be ready, is just one problem of many on the agency’s plate. (credit: DIRECT)

NASA’s continuing problems

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It’s been fourteen and a half months since the Obama Administration announced plans to cancel the Constellation program, and only last week, with the passage of a final fiscal year 2011 appropriations bill, is NASA now free to cancel those contracts. Ironically, the Ares 1, perhaps the most controversial element of Constellation, may live on in some fashion: ATK has proposed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program the Liberty rocket, using the same SRB lower stage and an upper stage derived from the core stage of the European Ariane 5 rocket. Since once of the goals of CCDev is to build up the American launch industry, Liberty may pose something of a headache to NASA.

President Obama’s new plan to freeze annual NASA spending at $18.7 billion per year for the next five years may be the agency’s best case scenario.

Liberty is hardly the only problem NASA is facing today. The agency is lucky that the GOP-controlled House of Representatives managed to cut only $250 million from its 2011 budget. After all NASA’s leaders have done nothing to convince the Republicans—or, for that matter, many Democrats—that they can be wise stewards of taxpayer money. They killed the Constellation Moon exploration program using dubious assumptions about future funding. They show no sign of being any better at keeping the costs of major space science programs like the James Webb Space Telescope or the Mars Science Laboratory under control than previous NASA administrators.

President Obama’s new plan to freeze annual NASA spending at $18.7 billion per year for the next five years may be the agency’s best case scenario. Instead of the Bush-era Constellation Moon-Mars program, NASA now has Obama’s goal of getting to a near Earth asteroid. Yet the new NASA proposal does not include any money for this specific mission.

Last year Congress passed and the President signed a NASA authorization bill that promised the agency $19.5 billion in fiscal year 2012. The same bill ordered that NASA begin work on a new heavy lift vehicle, called the Space Launch System (SLS), not dissimilar to the Ares 5 launcher that had been under development for the Constellation program. Now the agency’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate says that they cannot build the rocket that Congress and the President ordered them to build. This raises the question: when did NASA realize it couldn’t build the SLS? If it was sooner than January’s preliminary report to Congress that contained that conclusion, did NASA’s leadership raise those concerns with the White House and Congress?

By taking away the goal of going back to the Moon and building a base there, NASA has eliminated the element of national pride that has always been the most important and unspoken aspect of America’s space program. If NASA is now just another international partner, its funding will reflect the importance most Americans give to passing what Senator, and failed presidential candidate, John Kerry called the “global test”.

There is also now no reason for Congress to give NASA’s technology development program more than a billion dollars to do essentially nothing. None of the proposed development programs are sufficiently funded to produce any operational hardware within the foreseeable future. With no goal, except uncertain and ill-defined asteroid and Mars missions that will almost certainly never take off before 2030, NASA’s Chief Technologist reminds one of the title character in the old Beatles song “Nowhere Man.”

US civil space policy is now subject to a bitter and prolonged tug-of-war between Congress and the administration.

NASA’s $5-billion science budget is almost certainly going to be cut. Many in Congress are suspicious of its earth science programs since not only do they seem to have little to do with the agency’s core space exploration mission, but the programs are so intertwined with the controversies and political battles over global warming that cutting them or putting them on “pause” would seem logical. At the very least many of the new earth observation satellites will be delayed while Congress examines the role of earth sciences at NASA.

That effort is complicated by the loss of the Glory spacecraft earlier this year on a Taurus XL launch vehicle made by Orbital Sciences Corporation. This firm is one of the two winners of the commercial space station resupply contracts that NASA hopes will lead to a manned taxi service into orbit. Unfortunately, Orbital Sciences plans to fulfill this contract using a rocket called the Taurus II. Spaceflight is, at the moment, an inherently unsafe business and failures are to be expected, but if the commercial space industry on which NASA is betting its future cannot do better than this, then the agency will be in even worse political shape than it is in already.

Reps. Ralph Hall (R-TX) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the chair and the ranking member, respectively, of the House Space, Science, and Technology Committee, have expressed their disappointment—to put it mildly—with the 2012 proposed NASA budget. The administration’s proposal, according to both of them, ignores the NASA authorization bill that President Obama signed last year. Congressman Hall has promised, “I will continue to push NASA to adhere to congressional direction and follow the priorities that are now the law of the land.”

US civil space policy is now subject to a bitter and prolonged tug-of-war between Congress and the administration. For future political scientists, the actions of Bolden and the White House’s science policy makers may turn out to be a textbook case in how not to reform a government program.