Bill calls for NASA to continue push to Moon

Legislation would halt space shuttle retirement and continue human space flight plan

President Barack Obama's plan to push NASA to scrap the contract with commercial companies to build space taxis is meeting with some resistance in Congress.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) yesterday introduced a bill that would undo NASA's plans to retire its aging space shuttle fleet later this year. The bill would also require that NASA continue on with its Constellation program, which calls for building rockets and spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and further into space.

"We must close the gap in U.S. human space flight or face the reality that we will be totally dependent on Russia for access to space until the next generation of space vehicle is developed," said Sen. Hutchison, in a statement. "If the space shuttle program is terminated, Russia and China will be the only nations in the world with the capability to launch humans into space. This is unacceptable."

Hutchison introduced the bill just a little more than a month after the president released his 2011 federal budget proposal, which would eliminate NASA's plan to return humans to the moon by 2020.

The budget plan aims to turn the agency's attention to developing new engines, in-space fuel depots and robots that can venture into space.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden has repeatedly said since the budget plan was proposed that the Constellation program is behind schedule, and projected to ultimately be over budget. He said he feared that NASA's Constellation program would sap funding and attention from developing new technologies.

Sticking with the plan would also drain funds from the space spation program, and would force NASA to withdraw its support from the international effort as early as 2015, he added.

The Obama administration's new plan calls for NASA to work with commercial aeronautics companies to design and build so-called space taxis that could take astronauts to the space station and eventually into outer space.

Obama's plan - and the fact that it could lead to job losses in both Florida and Texas -- got a pretty chilly reception in Congress this week. Bolden faced a vigorous round of questions in front of Congress earlier this week about the space agency's missions and what the new budget plan means for NASA.

The Wall Street Journal reported late yesterday that Bolden has asked senior managers at NASA to draw up an alternate plan in case Congress shoots down Obama's proposal. The alternative would be a compromise that would include ideas from both the administration and Congress, according to the Journal .

Sen. Hutchison's bill is designed to enable NASA to postpone the retirement of the space shuttle fleet until work is complete on a next-generation American spacecraft.

She also wants to push forward with NASA's goal of moving beyond human flights in low-Earth orbit and extend missions out to the moon or Mars.

Hutchison called the administration's plan short-sighted.

"Not only are we turning our backs on 40 years of American space superiority, we are giving up vital national security and economic interests to other nations," she added. "This must not be an 'either-or' proposition where we are forced to choose between continuing to fly the shuttle to service the station and maintain our independence in reaching space, or investing in the next generation of space vehicle. We can and must do both."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said Hutchison is obviously motivated to keep jobs in her area and boost her public approval. However, that doesn't mean that the legislation won't garner much support across the country. "Some politicians are, of course, concerned about losing major facilities and employers in their districts, but that doesn't necessarily mean that their argument is without merit," said Olds. "If the space shuttle is retired now, we do lose our ability to launch humans into space until the new, privately built space taxis comes on line. I do think that private industry can probably do a better, faster, and less expensive job of it than the government, but they're not going to be able to get these new vehicles off the ground as quickly as hoped." He added that it comes down to how long the U.S. wants to go without being able to launch an astronaut into orbit on its own.

"In fact, I can put together a compelling case for launching politicians into orbit that would be sure to gather broad public support and immediate funding from voluntary contributions," he added.

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