NASA's astronauts and its leading contractors have been preparing to visit the moon and Mars, but now they must first make an emergency landing at the appropriations committees.
That's because the White House has announced plans to scrap the Constellation program and spend the money on climate science, commercial rockets, the International Space Station and a new generation of space-exploration technology.
"We're not rolling over on this... [but] we're behaving in a fairly low-key manner" to avoid antagonizing the White House, said one industry official. The incumbent aerospace contractors, he said, will lobby Congress to preserve some projects from the Mars- and lunar-landing program to serve as a foundation for further technology development.
The pushback was clear on Wednesday, when administration officials were put in the hot seat by rocket-friendly legislators such as Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who chairs NASA's authorization panel, and Texas Rep. Pete Olson, the ranking Republican on the House science committee's space panel.
In the Senate hearing, Nelson said Constellation's cancellation leaves NASA without clear goals and vulnerable to budget cuts. He pressed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden until Bolden said he assumed the White House's goal is to eventually land explorers on Mars. "The president has to step out and take control and offer the leadership on the goal that has been now articulated by the administrator of NASA... which is Mars," Nelson said. "If you have a presidential decision that is what we're going to do... then things can start popping."
But the administration's plan also has backers, including climate-science researchers, overseas governments and contractors such as Orbital Sciences Corp. in Dulles, Va., and SpaceX in Hawthorne, Calif.
The Constellation program was announced in 2004 by President George W. Bush, and was aimed to lift the U.S. space program from a longstanding concentration on the low-orbit missions by the space shuttle and the space station. The program, however, was heading toward a crisis because the long-term budget plans allocated roughly $3 billion per year less than its likely cost.
Under the Obama administration's new plan, the moon and Mars missions, plus the required rockets and associated spacecraft, are being canceled. The major losers are Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems, and their subcontractors, which are based in multiple states.
The administration's new plan would keep the space station operating past its original shutter date of 2016 and would eventually resupply astronauts there via rockets now being developed by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. Roughly $2 billion of NASA's budget request is being shifted into climate research, said NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver. Other savings are also being reallocated to aid the development of technologies such as robots and orbital refueling stations and to help create a commercial astronaut-launching industry, said Garver. Aided by the request for a 10 percent increase, or $500 million, for space science, "We're putting the science back into rocket science," said John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The administration's plan was designed to soften the economic hit to Nelson's Florida, because it provides extra local funding to fill in the spending gap between the final space shuttle flight this September and the start of any new space launch program, said Brett Silcox, acting director of the independent nonprofit National Space Society. Overall, the administration's plan requests $19 billion for 2011 and calls for an extra $6 billion for NASA over the next five years.
But Nelson and other critics say the new plan is too vague to preserve NASA's astronaut-exploration programs or the jobs in their home states. "The goal is to go to Mars... [so] we should develop the technology in pursuit of that goal, not the other way around," said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate space subcommittee. "This budget and the vision it represents would end our human space program and would surrender at least for our time, and perhaps forever, our leadership," he said.
On Feb. 1, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the appropriations panel that sets NASA's budget, also slammed the budget request. The budget "begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight," Shelby declared. He added, "If this budget is enacted, NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science; it will be the agency of pipe dreams and fairy tales."
Shelby's counterpart in the House, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., the ranking member of NASA's House appropriations committee, was also critical of the new plan, announcing at a Feb. 24 budget hearing that "by killing the exploration program in favor of a vaguely defined 'research and development' program, you are guaranteeing that the Chinese, Russians and others will be closing the exploration gap... [and] I fear the U.S. will no longer have the resources or the political support to re-launch our human spaceflight program" once new technology is developed.
Nelson and his allies did not call for full funding of the Constellation program, but instead said NASA should fund parts of the Constellation program along with some of the new commercial-style programs. "We need to do both," he said. Continued work on the program's heavy-lifting Ares rockets would offset the "massive loss of jobs" that will happen as the shuttle is retired, Nelson said.
"There is room for compromise... this is not a parochial issue, this is a national one," said an industry official, who also argued the cancellation of the Ares I rocket will make NASA dependent on the unproven rockets being developed by Orbital Science and SpaceX. A second industry official said, "The endgame is to get the appropriators to fund all or most [of Constellation] while the commercial guys... prove themselves on commercial cargo."
But this pushback is hampered by the desire of each Constellation contractor, and each legislator, to ensure their own projects don't get dropped in any compromise, said a third industry official. Also, legislators generally support NASA, but few see it as a high priority. "Support for NASA is a mile wide and an inch deep," he said.
And the budget proposal will be aided by the groups that gain money from the new plan. Orbital Sciences, for example, has a contract to deliver eight capsules with a total of 20,000 pounds of cargo to the space station, and it's based in Wolf's district. Orbital is also close to Maryland, home of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the chairwoman of NASA's Senate appropriations subcommittee. Mikulski's state includes a variety of science centers whose payloads are lofted into space from Orbital's launch site in Wallops Island, roughly 20 miles south of Maryland's border with Virginia.
The increased focus on commercial-style contractors has earned plaudits from free-market advocates such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who say NASA is too bureaucratic. These advocates say the new plan will shake up NASA's management and spur the development of cheaper launchers for getting people into space.
"My sense is that the administration is pretty set on this, and industry probably knows it's a done deal," said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for the Teal Group, a market research firm in Fairfax, Va. "It doesn't do Boeing or Lockheed any good to anger the Obama administration, because the serious money for these companies is not in NASA, it's in the defense department," he said.
However, the administration "doesn't have a natural leader on the Hill" to push the new program through opposition, said one industry official who supports the administration's plan.
That leaves leadership in the hands of Nelson, Shelby and other Constellation advocates.
"There is a great deal at stake here," Nelson said at his hearing. "Not only for employees in our respective states, but clearly for this nation being the leader in technology through its space exploration program."