New Direction for NASA Could Wait Until February

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to human spaceflight during a Dec. 16 meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, but details of what path the president wants the space agency to take are not expected until the White House submits its 2011 budget request to Congress in February, according to government officials.

Aerospace industry sources with close ties to the Obama administration said in advance of the Oval Office meeting that Bolden had prepared four options for the president to consider, all of which were said to include some variation of the so-called “Flexible Path” scenario a White House-chartered expert panel proposed this summer. Flexible Path involves sending astronauts to various destinations instead of focusing exclusively on the Moon.

Government and industry sources told Space News that the option favored by senior administration officials would add $1 billion to NASA’s annual budget beginning in 2011, with most of the money designated for human spaceflight programs. It would also scrap the Ares 1 rocket in favor of outsourcing space operations in low Earth orbit to the private sector. Among the other scenarios Bolden went to the meeting prepared to discuss with Obama, these sources said, were options that ranged from either cutting the agency’s budget slightly or holding it flat to giving the agency a $3 billion-a-year increase.

Earlier today the president met with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in the Oval office,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told Space News Dec. 16. “The president confirmed his commitment to human space exploration, and the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a sustainable path to achieving our aspirations in space.”

Bolden and senior administration officials have spent the past several months mulling the findings of a blue-ribbon panel that found the agency’s Constellation program, a five-year-old effort to replace the space shuttle with rockets and spacecraft optimized for the Moon, is incompatible with NASA’s budget.

The panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norm Augustine, issued and Oct. 22 report that proposed, among other options, scaling back or canceling elements of Constellation, including the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 rocket. In addition, the report urged the administration to consider adding as much as $3 billion to NASA’s $18.7 billion annual budget to adequately fund space exploration beyond low Earth orbit and relying on commercial ventures to transport cargo and astronauts to the international space station.

“Against a backdrop of serious challenges with the existing program, the Augustine committee has offered several key findings and a range of options for how the nation might improve its future human spaceflight activities,” Shapiro said. ”The two spoke about the administrator’s work at NASA and they also discussed the Augustine committee’s analysis.”

During a Dec. 16 White House press conference, Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told reporters the president remains committed to NASA.

“Obviously the budget here is being put together for next year. I know the most previous budget that was passed represented an increase in spending for NASA, and the president believes that NASA plays a vital role going forward,” Gibbs said.