Sunday, May 10, 2009

Up in the air

With the shuttle program winding down, NASA’s future needs resolution

This weekend moviegoers are getting their first look at the reinvented Star Trek, the latest cinematic twist on a 43-year-old iconic TV series and subsequent set of feature films that helped hook several generations of Americans on the allure of manned space exploration.

Meanwhile, in real life down here on Earth, NASA’s plans to boldly go to the moon (where a handful of astronauts have gone before) and Mars (where humans have never been) face scrutiny and possible delays by a review committee set up by President Barack Obama’s administration. Former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norman Augustine will chair the effort, which aims to produce findings by the end of August. Houston, home to the Johnson Space Center and its 20,000 employees comprising the heart of the U.S. manned spaceflight program, has a lot riding on the outcome of that review.

With the space shuttle fleet to be mothballed after nine more flights, including Monday’s scheduled launch of Atlantis to service the Hubble telescope, the U.S. will face years without the capability to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. That will make the formerly dominant U.S. space program dependent on Russia for access to even low Earth orbit for five years or longer. Although congressional critics have called for an extension of shuttle operations, NASA is going forward with layoffs and program cuts to close out shuttle operations.

The review will take a top-to-bottom look at the progress of the Constellation program, which would replace the space shuttle with a new generation of Ares launch rockets and the Orion, an expanded version of the capsule-style craft that carried astronauts to and from the moon. Developmental issues with the Ares I and V have prompted some experts to suggest that existing Atlas and Delta rockets used to launch military satellites could be adapted for the Orion at a substantial savings.

Whether the review actually results in a substantive change in NASA’s future plans is uncertain. The space agency has spent $13.6 billion on the Constellation program so far, and will continue the work at a $300 million-a-month clip even while the audit goes forward.

The administration has proposed $18.7 billion for NASA’s 2010 budget, a 5 percent increase over current spending levels. The allocation for Constellation actually got a boost, at least in the short term.

Obama has yet to select a new NASA administrator, leaving agency veteran Christopher Scolese as acting chief. At a budget briefing, Scolese, who will choose the ten-member review panel in consultation with the White House, signaled his own preference for the manned exploration program. “Clearly if we are on the wrong path, we should change,” said Scolese. “If you are asking me if I think we’re on the wrong path, no, I don’t.”

It’s a positive sign that funding for work on the new launch system will continue during the review. Obama needs to name a permanent NASA chief who can forcefully articulate the agency’s future flight plans.

The United States must maintain a leading role in the exploration of space by manned and unmanned vehicles, for economic, scientific and national security reasons.

The Houston area has watched its residents walk on the moon. The fact that the space program has been allowed to muddle into a precarious situation where America will lack the capacity to even launch astronauts into orbit for a period of years is not only shameful, but dangerous to the national interest. It must be remedied as soon as possible.

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