The Orlando Sentinel is reporting budget number details from the Senate version of the 2011 NASA Authorization Bill. What appears to be emerging is a NASA budget that neither fully funds Constellation or the Obama space plan. According to the Sentinel:
“It proposes spending $11.3 billion through 2013 to develop the rocket and a fully-loaded Orion crew capsule capable of flying humans to the moon and beyond. It authorizes spending $1.3 billion on Orion and $1.9 billion on the new rocket next year. The aim of the bill is to have the new rocket and capsule ready to fly by 2016.
“It also orders NASA to “utilize existing contracts, investments, workforce, industrial base, and capabilities from the space shuttle and former Orion and Ares I projects.” This could save billions in termination costs but force NASA to continue using ATK’s solid-rocket motors that the White House had hoped to scrap in favor of a liquid-fueled rocket, like the Saturn V that launched astronauts to the moon in 1969.
“At the same time, the bill would provide three-year appropriations totaling $250 million for robotic missions intended to pave the way for human deep-space exploration, $1.7 billion for technology research and development and $890 million to help commercial rocket companies develop space taxis for astronauts.
“By comparison, the administration had proposed $1.3 billion for robotic missions, $5.5 billion for technology development and $3.3 billion on commercial rocket companies between 2011 and 2013. Obama also wanted to develop only a scaled-down Orion to act as a lifeboat on the space station.
“The bill would forbid NASA from spending any money on service contracts with commercial-rocket companies in 2011 and allow it in 2012 only if NASA can satisfy six requirements. Those include coming up with standards that commercial rocket firms would use to make their rockets safe for humans, along with devising a congressionally approved system to buy private rocket services for astronauts.
“Commercial-space supporters say that while these requirements are reasonable, they are concerned they could be used as roadblocks.”
The NASA authorization bill is being described as a “compromise,” but, in the way of many compromises, is not likely to satisfy anyone. While the bill plans to have a heavy lift vehicle and an Orion space craft ready by 2016, three years before the original Constellation plan, there is no provision for equipment such as a manned lander to enable a return to the Moon. The Obama space plan’s commercial initiative, technology development program, and robotic programs are all severely slashed.
There is an open question as to whether either the heavy life launcher/Orion program or the commercial space initiative are viable under the budget levels proposed. The Senate committee seems unwilling to authorize any money above the $19 billion administration request.
The development seems to be an inevitable result of the attempt by the Obama administration to cancel the exploration program entirely, without vetting the plan first with Congress and other stakeholders. Both Congress and the public by and large rejected the Obama space plan. Somewhat clumsy attempts to sell the plan after the fact fell upon deaf ears. In the meantime, opposition to it came from members of Congress, outside experts, Tea Party supporters, and even former Apollo astronauts.
By contrast, the Constellation space exploration program had been debated openly for a number of years, was approved by Congresses of both parties, and enjoyed wide spread support, if not adequate funding.
The infamous NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s “mission to the Muslims” gaffe did not help matters either.
The future, of course, is unclear. The Senate authorization bill has to pass the full Senate. The House has to pass its own version of the bill. The two bills have to be reconciled, and sent to President Obama.
If that happens before the end of this Congress, then President Obama has a number of options.
One, he could veto the bill. The problem is that the NASA appropriations bill, should it be passed, will likely mirror the authorization bill. Would Obama veto that too, leaving NASA without funding for 2011, or leave it subject to a continuing resolution that effectively leaves everything in limbo (a CR may happen in any case.)? Congress could also override a veto, a very big embarrassment to the President.
Two, Obama could use the bill as the basis for a negotiation. Does he try to raise funding levels, perhaps with unspent stimulus money? Or, does he try to shift money around more to his liking?
Finally, Obama could accept the way things are, and move on to more pressing priorities.
In any event, the NASA authorization bill proves the old adage that lawmaking is like sausage-making: not something to look at too closely. President Obama, in attempting to close down the Constellation program without having a clear, vetted program of his own, has, in effect, tossed a hand grenade into NASA. The Senate bill is a somewhat unsatisfactory attempt to put the pieces back together. However, a fully functional NASA, with a clear plan going forward that all the stakeholders can live with, is likely a task for the next President of the United States.
Chalk the situation up as another disaster for the Obama administration, one not likely to its credit.
Is Utah emerging as rival to KSC?, Robert Block, Orlando Sentinel, July 12th, 2010
More Details of Senate NASA Authorization Bill Emerges, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, July 10th, 2010