By ANDY PASZTOR
Even as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is set to receive billions of dollars in additional funding for technology in the latest White House budget, the agency has yet to chart a detailed course for future manned space flight once the space shuttle is retired in 2011.
1:45President Barack Obama wants to scrap NASA’s plan to return to the moon by 2020. The funds will be redirected to new research, but not everyone is happy. Video courtesy of Fox News.
That could erode congressional and public support for NASA, according to some industry officials and lawmakers.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden predicted that the proposed $19 billion fiscal-2011 budget, an increase of 2% from the previous year, would be “good for NASA.” He added that a plan to rely on private companies to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station would be “great for the American work force.”
But the budget, which created an element of uncertainty about NASA’s priorities, is likely to further stoke fierce congressional opposition.
Drastic shifts envisioned in NASA’s fiscal-2011 budget include killing Constellation, the current program intended to send astronauts back to the moon, and replacing it with initiatives to stimulate various commercial space projects and create a new generation of heavy-lift rockets able to penetrate deeper into space. The spending package also seeks greater international cooperation, even on the highest-priority manned projects, along with ambitious new efforts to develop in-orbit construction and refueling capabilities.
Despite the request for an increase in funding, the budget package doesn’t lay out detailed timetables or destinations for future manned exploration. Instead, it seeks to save money in the short term by turning over to private enterprise the job of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.
When it comes to substantially longer, more complex missions envisioned for coming decades, the spending plan simply puts in place technology-development efforts NASA would nurture until those decisions are made.
Lori Garver, the agency’s No. 2 official, told reporters Monday that the aim is to “unleash the economic potential of space” by letting private enterprise bid on contracts intended to “take us further and faster and more affordably” to landings on the moon, asteroids and eventually Mars. A joint NASA-White House statement released along with the budget blueprint suggests that unmanned missions will grow in prominence for at least the next decade, though it stopped short of detailing how.
The thrust is to promote cutting-edge technologies, including new robotic missions to the moon, rather than establish clear-cut timelines and destinations. Some lawmakers and industry experts argue that a more-detailed approach could generate greater public support for NASA’s agenda.
The space shuttles are expected to be retired in about a year, though NASA predicts their first commercially operated replacements to service the International Space Station won’t be ready until 2016 at the earliest.
Overall exploration and science budgets each would climb by more than 10% in the next fiscal year, but space operations would decline by roughly 20%.