Congress Finally Passed a NASA Plan. So What's in It?

By Andrew Moseman | September 30, 2010 4:51 pm

FirstShuttleLaunchFinally, after spending much of 2010 sparring over the future direction of NASA, Congress approved the space agency’s reauthorization bill (pdf) last night. It was not a moment too soon, as the new fiscal year begins tomorrow.

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait documents the reactions of Congressional representatives, and that unsavory feeling of watching the sausage get made in Congress. Here are the basics of the bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.

Money

The measure covers the next three years, appropriating $19 billion to NASA for 2011 and slightly more over the next two years, adding up to about $58 billion through 2013.

Along with the reauthorization bill, the House also passed a continuing resolution to grant NASA the money to get moving. But Congress doesn’t reconvene from its current break until after the November elections, and that’s when they’ll have to pass appropriations to actually get NASA this money.

Space Shuttle

The program is still going away, and sooner rather than later. The Congressional compromise tacked on one additional shuttle flight to the last two that currently remain. But after that, it’s curtains.

With the end of that program, scores of jobs at NASA and its contractors will be lost. In fact, on Oct. 1 nearly 1,400 shuttle workers will be laid off at NASA contractor United Space Alliance – a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. [Space.com]

Constellation

President Obama’s planned NASA makeover famously axed the Constellation program, the vision of his predecessor, George W. Bush, for going back to the moon and on to Mars. Plenty of contractors and Congressional representatives objected to the Obama administration’s move, but the program is dead with this new plan.

It’s back to the drawing board—sort of. The law demands a new heavy-lift vehicle (HLV), one derived from technology used on the shuttles and built for Constellation.

The HLV – to be ready to launch by 2016 – will initially provide a backup to commercial fleet, prior to a leading role as the NASA vehicle for Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration. [NASASpaceflight.com]

Same goes for a new crew vehicle: Congress calls on NASA to start work on a new one based on the “human safety features, designs, and systems” of  Orion, the crew vehicle under development for Constellation. These compromises were the source of controversy yesterday, as some members of Congress suggested that Congress ought not be telling NASA how to build a rocket.

To the moon? Mars? Elsewhere?

Unlike President Bush’s Constellation and its go-go scheduling for getting back to the moon by 2020, this week’s compromise plan isn’t big on setting concrete dates. The reauthorization outlines its broad goals: Getting beyond low Earth orbit and making a trip to the moon or a nearby asteroid possible, and in the long-term achieving a human spaceflight to Mars. But it doesn’t say when.

Private spaceflight, and the International Space Station

The companies building spacecraft that they hope will carry astronauts into low Earth orbit—SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Sierra Nevada and the like—will continue to receive support from NASA for that mission.

NASA will now be able to spend $1.3 billion over the next 3 years to fund the development of commercial spacecraft. That’s considerably less than the $3.3 billion that had been requested by the White House but it still allows NASA to begin to implement the vision laid out by the president. [ScienceNOW]

Despite the reduction from what Obama asked for, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation—an organization of those companies—lobbied for the bill’s approval. One reason they’re probably gung-ho is that the plan calls for the continued use of the International Space Station. That means we’ll still need a post-shuttle vehicle to get cargo and crew up there. From the text of the reauthorization:

It shall be the policy of the United States, in consultation with its international partners in the ISS program, to support full and complete utilization of the ISS through at least 2020…. NASA shall pursue international, commercial, and intragovernmental means to maximize ISS logistics supply, maintenance, and operational capabilities, reduce risks to ISS systems sustainability, and offset and minimize United States operations costs relating to the ISS.

What about the basics?

The approved compromise allows for a healthy appropriation for NASA basic science—about $5 billion of the $19 billion annual total. The fear, though, is that the ambitious agenda means sacrifices must be made. Because of the immediate start on a new heavy-lift vehicle, plus Congress’s demand that NASA fly the extra shuttle mission next year, there may be extra demand for funds sooner rather than later.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), who initially opposed the Senate bill in favor of his own version, said in a statement that other important NASA programs, such as science and technology research, would likely be cannibalized for this launch. [Nature]

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: Congress passes NASA authorization bill, but I’d rather watch sausages being made
80beats: Gallery: Boeing Joins Start-up Companies in the Private Space Race
80beats: Obama’s NASA Plan Draws Furious Fire; The Prez Promises to Defend His Vision
DISCOVER: NASA Braces for a Course Correction

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Top Posts
  • Frederick Thurber

    What about unmaned robotic spacecraft??? The price tag for these are minor compared to manned missions while the scientific reward far exceeds manned flight. The Voyager spacecraft or MER rovers for example have had huge returns for relatively minor cost.

    The problem is that NASA is dominated by fighter jocks raised on Star Wars and robotic flights are given short-shift. There are few of these flights in the future. New Europa and Titan/Enceldaus probes are needed along with many other destinations.

  • Wil

    The technical requirements of space flight within the solar system are well enough understood, and our general level of technology is good enough, that billions of dollars should be routinely siphoned away from NASA and given to private space firms.

    Private space firms are lagging not because of insufficient inspiration, talent or technology, but for the following three reasons:
    1. Lack of money
    2. Lack of money
    3. Lack of money

    Any of the larger private space firms could achieve any practical mission within the solar system, if properly funded. And the great thing is they can do it much faster, much cheaper, and with much less politics than NASA ever could.

    What is $1 billion to any department of the U.S. government, including NASA? Lunch money, at best.
    What is that same amount of money to a private space firm? An unprecedented, miraculous bonanza, beyond their wildest hopes or dreams.

  • Dean Unick

    I tend to agree broadly with the two previous respondents, Will and Frederick Thurber.

    Private enterprise, when competing, the very nature of business, can vastly out perform any committee endeavor. I you want to get a robotic explorer on the moon, make it some form of lightly funded X Prize, with the pot of gold for the winners.

    I tend, with an exception, to also think/ know that robotic exploration has produced tremendous results. If it is a choice between sending two pilots on a mission or one robot, send the robot certainly. The alternative is not often enough discussed. In the case of Mars exploration, the first explorers, whether now or at anytime in the future, the first explorers should be immigrants. It is a matter of science.

    Put two men on Mars and intend a return? Both must be pilots, not scientists, time on the surface must be limited to Solar System orbital mechanics, science and research will horribly suffer. And the return is the expensive portion of the trip and ten times the risk.

    Send four men or women, supply so they may live and work for years, possibly decades. It is STILL less expensive than landing two pilots on Mars for two weeks and returning them. Ten thousand times the science for half the cost.

    When we go to Mars, it must be for science. So stay. I would.

    Send old not young, send stone masons and scientists, not pilots.

    Dean Unick

  • Dean Unick

    I tend to agree broadly with the two previous respondents, Will and Frederick Thurber.

    Private enterprise, when competing, the very nature of business, can vastly out perform any committee endeavor. If you want to get a robotic explorer on the moon, make it some form of lightly funded X Prize, with the pot of gold for the winners.

    I tend, with an exception, to also think/ know that robotic exploration has produced tremendous results. If it is a choice between sending two pilots on a mission or one robot, send the robot certainly. The alternative is not often enough discussed. In the case of Mars exploration, the first explorers, whether now or at anytime in the future, the first explorers should be immigrants. It is a matter of science.

    Put two men on Mars and intend a return? Both must be pilots, not scientists, time on the surface must be limited to Solar System orbital mechanics, science and research will horribly suffer. And the return is the expensive portion of the trip and ten times the risk.

    Send four men or women, supply so they may live and work for years, possibly decades. It is STILL less expensive than landing two pilots on Mars for two weeks and returning them. Ten thousand times the science for half the cost.

    When we go to Mars, it must be for science. So stay. I would.

    Send old not young, send stone masons and scientists, not pilots.

    Dean Unick

  • Michael Berry

    Well said, Dean, and I agree completely. Trouble is, I don’t think we’ll be seeing any manned missions to Mars for at least two to three decades. If you consider all the red tape standing in the way of the space program’s progress, it may not happen until 2040 or later.

    To be honest, I see the Russian space program taking the spotlight in the next decade and possibly becoming the global leaders of most major spaceflight missions. With the US out of commission during the major restructuring within NASA and the transition to the new HLV, Russia will likely receive funding that would have otherwise gone to the US. I may be mistaken, but won’t any new trips to the ISS need to be undertaken by Russia? To me, this seems to mean that they could use this opportunity to take the lead, not only on the short term while we’re out of commission but also on the long term.

    That doesn’t really bother me, though. I actually sort of hope that’s what happens, for a number of reasons. Obviously in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make a difference who’s leading humanity in space exploration; the fact that we are making progress at all is a good thing. Another beneficial aspect of another country taking the spotlight could mean a greater public demand of the US government to allow the private sector to take a crack at exploratory missions. If that’s the case, then it’s the first step we’ll have had toward significant progress in a long time. I still think the most logical step forward for us would be to set up a base on the moon for use as a launching station of sorts for other major missions, but that’s another matter entirely.

    My hopes are high, but my rationality tells me that we’ve got a long way to go before we see a man on Mars. Of course, a hundred years from now, we may be saying the same thing about putting a man on the nearest Earth-like planet.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

80beats

80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »