NASA Decision Afoot in Congress?

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX


The US House of Representatives are preparing to vote on H.R. 5781, their version of NASA’s $19 billion budget authorization for fiscal year 2011, and several groups are calling for a “no” vote, or at the very least, a delay in the vote, currently scheduled for Friday, July 30. The House version would cut much of the proposed money for commercial space development and game-changing technology development, while putting more money towards a NASA-built rocket. There’s a lot being written about this …

Here are some great articles/resources to check out:

Space Politics by Jeff Foust shares an email from SpaceX founder Elon Musk asking for US citizens to contact their representatives to vote no. (There are instructions there on how to contact your representative, as well).

The Planetary Society put out a press release asking for a delay in the vote until there’s been more discussion and debate.

Alan Boyle at MSNBC writes about the “Showdown Over Space Policy”

More on the inside stuff going on in Washington regarding NASA from Space News.

If you are undecided, take a look at this comparison of the House and Senate versions of the bill from The Space Foundation.

Rand Simberg from Popular Mechanics asks, “Is NASA being set up to fail again?”

Irene Klotz at Discovery Space uncovered some stealth funding for Constellation hidden in a bill regarding the war in Afghanistan.

The people behind the DIRECT launcher call for support of the Senate version of the bill, not the House’s.

ADDED on 7/30/2010:

Space News now reports that a vote on the NASA bill appears unlikely until September.

Here’s a pdf letter from two unions, the International Federation of Professional & Technical Employees (IFPTE) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) who both oppose the House NASA Reauthorization bill, HR 5781.

Senate’s New NASA Plan: Heavy Lift, Extra Shuttle Mission, Less Commericial and Tech Development

NASA's 'meatball' logo.

The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation today unanimously approved legislation that would add a shuttle mission and jump start work on a heavy-lift rocket next year. The NASA Reauthorization Act effectively cancels the Constellation program, but directs NASA to begin work immediately on a new heavy-lift vehicle to be ready by 2016, along with a crew vehicle. The new legislation takes money away, however, from two main focuses on Obama’s proposed budget: commercial space development and funding for innovation and breakthrough technologies.

Commercial space ventures would only get $1.6 billion for development in the next three years, as opposed to Obama’s plan for $3.3 billion on commercial rocket companies between 2011 and 2013.

Obama had proposed $6 billion over five years for technology development whereas the new Senate bill funds advanced technologies at about $950 million over three years.

Both of these components are a big disappointment for those looking towards the future and not necessarily honing in on the short-term of the next few years.

The plan, mainly spearheaded by Florida Senator Bill Nelson is said to be a compromise between Obama’s plan and those in Congress who opposed it.

“The goal was to preserve U.S. leadership in space exploration and keep as much of the rocket-industry talent as possible employed,” said Nelson, following Thursday’s unanimous approval of the authorization bill.

Nelson said extending the space shuttle into 2011 keeps much of the KSC workforce in place and advances heavy-lift rocket development, with an eye toward manned flights nearly a decade earlier than 2025, as had been proposed by the White House. It also provides the money for operating the International Space Station through 2020.

Some, including business and space advocates on the Space Coast, were critical of the draft bill because it scaled back President Obama’s proposed funding for that program and for technology development, both of which could create jobs.

The heavy lift development would be started now instead of 2015, as proposed by Obama.

But is creating a heavy-lift vehicle by 2016 doable, or is it basically asking NASA to do too much with too little – to which Constellation fell victim?

Although Nelson said the bill would support an overall growth in science, aeronautics, and space technology and define a long-term goal for human space flight to expand a permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit, no particular destination was cited.

The ISS would remain funded until 2020.

Here are they key differences between Obama’s budget plan and the Senate’s Reauthorization Act:

Space Shuttle
Obama: end in February, 2011
Senate: end in late summer, 2011

Commercial Space:
Obama: $3.3 billion for 2011-2013
Senate: $1.6 billion during the same time period

Constellation Program
Obama: Cancel, but continue with a “lite” version of the Orion space capsule
Senate: Cancel but accelerate development of a heavy-lift rocket that can also carry astronauts to low-earth orbit and continue development of an Orion-like space capsule

Technology Development
Obama: Fund Flagship Technologies program at $6 billion over five years
Senate: Fund advanced technologies at about $950 million over three years

For education the new bill would support new education initiatives, such as teacher training programs, to reinforce NASA’s role in developing a workforce with strong science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills.

The bill would require NASA to look at alternative management models for NASA’s workforce, centers, and capabilities, while enforcing short-term prohibitions on major center displacements and reductions-in-force until a job study is completed.

Weigh in on your opinions below. What’s next? The White House will probably respond with another compromise, and those who work at NASA will remain in limbo while another compromise is worked on.

Further reading:
Nelson Press Release of NASA 2010 Reauthorization Act
Orlando Sentinel: Better Course on Space
Houston Chronicle: (Sci Guy) White House May be Inclined to Support Senate Bill
Letter from former astronauts supporting Commercial Crew Transport
Letter from former astronauts against Obama plan (MSNBC)

Your Chance to Weigh in on NASA’s Future Destinations

NASA's 'meatball' logo.

Where do you think NASA’s next destination should be in space? Asteroid? The Moon? Mars? The Planetary Society is hosting an interactive Ustream chat where you can put in your 2 cents.

“Tell us where you want to go in space!” said Bill Nye (the Science Guy) who will soon become the Planetary Society’s new executive director. Nye and Louis Friedman, the Society’s current executive director, will host the live chat – titled “The New NASA Plan – Destinations” — on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm U.S. Pacific Time (5:00 pm EDT, 21:00 GMT).
“We want a lively debate!” said Friedman, who urges anyone to join the discussion.

The Planetary Society has been actively encouraging discussion of the new plan proposed for NASA, a plan that would entail a major shift in NASA’s human spaceflight program. The Society leadership feels that it is vital that public interest be represented in discussing issues that will change the course of the US space program for decades to come.

The new NASA plan for human spaceflight focuses on technologies and milestones that will advance human space flight out of Earth orbit and into the solar system. Mars may be the ultimate goal, but the path for humans to set foot on the Red Planet is flexible, to be determined step-by-step.

The Planetary Society plans to continue to hold webcasts on topics such as the deep space rocket, use of commercial launch vehicles, and robotic precursor missions.

Those wishing to participate in the Ustream chat room or to ask questions will need to set up a free account with Ustream prior to the start of the event. The New NASA Plan — Destinations will also be archived on Ustream for later viewing.

The Faces of the “New Frontier” of NASA’s Commercial Space Flight Plan

Respresentatives of the commercial companies that will partner with NASA. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls. See below for notation.


NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden introduced today five commercial space companies that NASA will use to support transport of crew to and from low Earth orbit as part of the Commercial Crew Development program. The firms were selected in an open competition for $50 million in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. During the event, Bolden countered the criticism of NASA’s new plan proposed by President Obama. “I respectfully disagree if you think we are abandoning human spaceflight. I think we’ll get there quicker. This is a fundamental re-baselining and a new ways of doing business to develop a program that is truly sustainable for the long term,” Bolden said. “This is a roadmap to even more historic achievements… We are not abandoning human space flight by any stretch of the imagination. We are on a new course, but human space flight is in our DNA.”

Several of the companies already do business with NASA, such as Boeing and United Launch Alliance – a coalition between Lockheed and Boeing.

Boeing will receive $18 million to work on a seven-person capsule that may launch on a medium-class expendable launch vehicle. Bruster Shaw from Boeing said “We’ve been in this game a long time and we have a vested interest in the International Space Station. We want to see ISS live up to its potential by having a robust logistics for the delivery of cargo and crew.”

Paragon Space Development Corporation will receive $1.4 million for life support systems, primarily an “air revitalization” system. President and founder Jane Poynter said, “We have developed and tested an array of technologies to use in a whole array of settings: on the ISS, the Moon, Mars. Air revitalization is the first of its kind, and will be a turnkey system to be used on any spacecraft on an array missions. We are deeply committed to the development of space for human exploration.”

The Dream Chaser. Credit: Sierra Nevada

Sierra Nevada Corporation will receive $20 million for the development of their “Dream Chaser,” a seven-person crew vehicle based on the Hl-20 runway landing, heavy lifting body concept (looks similar to the canceled Crew Return Vehicle for the ISS). Mark Sirangelo, Chairmen and Vice President of Sierra Nevada said, “Space is hard, it takes a lot of cooperation and teamwork. We have come through an unfunded space agreement with NASA, and have advanced our program to be very successful. We are looking forward to moving to the next level.”

The United Launch Alliance will receive $6.7 million for an emergency detection system for that will allow crewed capsules to launch on the Atlas and Delta rockets. Mike Gass, ULA President and CEO said “ULA has been supporting the nation with over 50 years of experience. Atlas and Delta will be used to support commercial crew in the future, and it’s all about crew safety, and we’ll provide a synergistic system to provide safe support.”

Blue Origin will receive $3.7 million for a new type of crew escape system. Robert Millman from Blue origin said, “We are dedicated to creating technology for enduring human presence in space. We are developing a “pusher” escape system, with an escape motor at back of capsule to avoid a jettison event.” They are also working on a composite pressure vessel to improve the durability for a conventional crew cabin.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden speaks during a press conference, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2010, at the National Press Club in Washington. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Also in attendance at the press conference were the companies that already have contracts with NASA through the COTS program, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)and Orbital Sciences Corp. David Thompson, CEO of Orbital applauded the new direction for NASA. “At their first turn at bat the Obama administration hit it out of the park. This new approach represents a dramatic change, and is consistent with what we’ve seen in this country and around the world, where there is an increased reliance on an ever-more reliable private sector. It seems this is the right time and direction for the agency to take in this new era, and I’m confident the private sector is up for new challenges”

Former astronaut Ken Bowersox with SpaceX said, “One of the most exciting thing about the budget is that it acknowledges one of the biggest barriers to exploring space: how to pay for it. It is going to be great to watch what happens when we blend the skills available in government with flexibility of the private sector.”

Top photo notation: From left, Ken Bowersox, VP Astronaut Safety, SpaceX, David Thompson, CEO, Orbital Science Corporation, Mark Sirangelo, VP and Chair, SNC Space Systems Board, Sierra Nevada Corp., NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Dr. John P. Holdren, Jane Poynter, President and Chair, Paragon Space Development Corp., Brewster Shaw, VP and General Manager, NASA Systems, Boeing, Robert Millman of Blue Origin, and, Mike Gass, President and Chief Executive, United Space Alliance.