Monday, February 8, 2010

Analysis: NASA must take next giant step

Mark Tolson
Houston Chronicle

When man first dreamed of venturing to worlds beyond his own, there was but one overwhelming question: How? That was then. Before NASA. Before Apollo. Before one giant step.

Now it's all about how much. With yet another of the agency's programs threatening to careen out of control and trample a string of meaningless target dates, President Barack Obama stepped in last week and pulled the plug. Gone in toto is the Constellation program, the goal of which was to send America back to the moon and lay the groundwork for more ambitious efforts.

While politicians screamed and contractors feared for their jobs, NASA said it was still committed to human space exploration and referred to the large centers that support it as the agency's “crown jewels.”

Charles Bolden, NASA's administrator, did his best to promote the positive effect of once again opening the floor for discussion.

“What's exciting is that we're now going to have a national debate about where we need to be going in terms of space exploration,” Bolden said.

Such debates have been ongoing since the Apollo program. Few topics can boast a more extensive inventory of white papers, vision statements, committee reports and congressional testimony. An entire cottage industry has been inspired by the briefest of questions — whither NASA? — and there is no hint of a definitive answer yet.

If a lunar return is in the cards, it will be part of a more modest plan that is still to be written. Or conceived.

Constellation had called for spending $108 billion over 15 years and promised a return to glory.

Now? More discussion.

“It's a crucial moment in manned spaceflight,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “How do we think we are going to accomplish going beyond low Earth orbit? It's a gut-check question for human spaceflight.”

Read the analysis, HERE.

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