In a letter to Senator Barbara Mikulski, who is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, Senator Bill Nelson outlined his vision for a NASA authorization bill.
Senator Nelson is the chair of the Science and Space Subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that handles NASA authorization.
Nelson’s concept for a NASA authorization bill differs from the Obama space plan in a number of respects. While Nelson does propose extending the International Space Station’s life to 2020, much of the rest of the Obama space plan would be altered.
The main difference would involve the beginning of a heavy lift vehicle development in 2011, instead of 2015, as suggested by President Obama. A “crewed exploration vehicle” would also be built. What sort of heavy lift rocket and crewed exploration vehicle would be built is left ambiguous, but Nelson mandates that the effort would leverage “-the workforce, contracts, assets, and capabilities of the shuttle, Ares 1, and Orion.”
The Nelson authorization legislation would also take a “walk before you run” approach to commercial space development. NASA would be required to complete a number of “-studies, assessments, and milestones” before a commercial service to and from ISS becomes operational.
An extra shuttle flight based on a “launch on need arrangement” would be allowed for in 2011.
The space exploration effort that Senator Nelson anticipates would adhere to the “flexible path” that would bypass the lunar surface, but would have a Mars landing as the ultimate goal.
Left unstated is how much money will be authorized for NASA programs, especially for the earlier-than-planned-by-Obama heavy lift launcher/crewed exploration vehicle development program. Also, while an authorization bill would suggest what kind of spending NASA can do, the appropriations bill that Senator Mikulski’s subcommittee, as well as her House counterpart, would have the final say.
Commercial space advocates will no doubt cringe at the idea of more obstacles in the path of the development of a private space transportation service to ISS. But, this derives from Congressional reluctance to go all-in for commercial space until Congress is satisfied that it will be cheap, reliable and, above all, safe – whatever that last word means insofar as space flight is concerned.
Bypassing a lunar landing is another aspect of the Nelson plan that is flawed. Lunar resources, such as water, can be used to sustain a settlement on the Moon, as well as provide fuel for expeditions further out into the solar system. Bypassing the Moon, in the opinion of many analysts, would constitute a strategic blunder, making deep space voyages to the asteroids, Mars, and other destinations more difficult to sustain.
Fortunately, though, the Nelson plan is just another proposal that will be worked on and altered by the Congressional sausage factory. What finally emerges, and when it will emerge, is difficult to predict. It is almost certain that there will be much to like and something to hate for everyone in whatever final product Congress comes up with.
Source: Letter to Senator Barbara Mikulski from Senator Bill Nelson on the Future of the US Space Program, Orlando Sentinel, June 14th, 2010