WASHINGTON — U.S. President BarackObama’s first-ever budget submission to Congress later this month is likely to provide clues rather than definitive answers to the questions that have been looming over NASA’s human spaceflight program ever since the historic November election that brought him to power.

During the campaign, then-Sen. Obama pledged to inject an additional $2 billion into the space agency’s budget to try to shorten the five-year gap between the space shuttle’s scheduled 2010 retirement and the debut of its successor system, and to press ahead with plans to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020. But the campaign was short on specifics, and questions asked by Obama’s NASA transition team cast a cloud of uncertainty over NASA’s shuttle replacement hardware choices under the Constellation program.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that the global financial crisis has worsened considerably since last fall, and Obama now must spend hundreds of billions of dollars more than previously expected on measures designed to keep the economy from collapsing altogether.

NASA could benefit, however, from the Obama administration’s spending plan aimed at beefing up existing government programs that can more quickly add jobs and spend money than long-term infrastructure projects, said Howard McCurdy, a space expert and visiting professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“That tends to favor things that are already going on like space shuttle or Constellation … The question to ask a very good accountant at NASA is which one can speed up spending most effectively,” McCurdy said.

According to congressional sources, the initial 2010 budget submission will be a broad federal spending outline rather than the very detailed plan that typically gets submitted to Congress each February. For NASA, this might mean a top-line budget and a broad statement of policy, to be followed by a more detailed budget submission in March or April.

In the interim, the administration and Congress need to hammer out a spending plan for the remainder of 2009; currently NASA is operating under a continuing resolution that funds most
federal agencies at 2008 levels for the first six months of the current fiscal year.

Speaking with reporters Jan. 13 during one of his last public appearances as NASA administrator, Mike Griffin warned that with the space shuttle program gobbling up funds at an annual rate of $3 billion, and development work on the next astronaut-launching system already ramping up, layoffs will occur if the agency does not get some sort of funding increase in 2009.
departed Jan. 16; at press time the White House had yet to name a successor.

also said NASA will need a decision by spring, along with the requisite funding commitment, on whether it must add one more flight to the space shuttle manifest to launch the Alpha Magnetic astronomy experiment to the international space station. The $1.5 billion instrument, developed by an international team of scientists, was left without a ride to space when NASA curtailed the space shuttle manifest following the 2003

By this summer,
added, NASA will need to know whether the White House will direct that space shuttle operations be extended beyond 2010, as some have advocated to shorten the period during which Russian Soyuz vehicles will be the only means of transporting crews to the space station.
has noted, however, that unless NASA gets a substantial funding increase, extending shuttle operations will only delay the advent of the replacement system.

In a Nov. 6 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified the space shuttle’s retirement as one of the 13 most important policy decisions faced by the new administration.

With nine missions and about 19 months left before the scheduled retirement, contractors are looking toward winding down their work and the critical employee base could dwindle if a decision is not made soon, the GAO said.

Congress in October laid the groundwork for extending shuttle operations by passing a 2008 NASA Authorization bill that directs the agency to halt any activity that might prevent the shuttle from flying past 2010. The directive ends April 30.

Congress also added two shuttle missions to the manifest that NASA requested for delivering spare parts to the space station, and authorized a third mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer – provided funding is allocated.

said during his press conference that the White House also must decide in the coming months whether to commit NASA to supporting the space station beyond 2015. The space station represents $100 billion of investment by NASA and its international partners; Europe and Japan saw their main modules launched to the space station just last year, and the facility just recently underwent upgrades to increase its crew size from three to six. But the agreements outlining the station partners’ roles and responsibilities to the program expire in 2015. “I think we should commit to using it as aggressively and thoroughly as possible,”
said, adding that now is the time to begin developing hardware to be tested aboard the facility.

said, it remains possible to accelerate the shuttle replacement system – the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its shuttle-derived Ares 1 launcher – with an infusion of some $4 billion in additional funding over the next five years. However, the future of these programs remains very much in question.

NASA transition team in November asked the agency what it would cost to scrap Ares
1 in
favor of using human-rated variants of existing rockets to launch a scaled-down version of Orion. Advocates of that approach argue that Ares 1 will prove too expensive, especially given the fact that NASA also must develop a heavy-lift vehicle dubbed Ares 5 as well as a large lunar lander dubbed Altair to return astronauts to the Moon.

During an interview in December,
said existing rockets are not big enough to launch Orion as currently scaled and that a stripped down version of that capsule would not be able to support a sustained presence on the lunar surface.

Doug Cooke, NASA associate administrator for exploration, told reporters during a Dec. 17 conference call that scrapping Ares 1 would cause work force disruptions and complicate development of the Ares 5, which has a lot of hardware commonality with Ares 1.

“Going to completely different hardware would put a big gap in our support of facilities and people and we think if there’s a big gap you’d end up losing people that can do the job,” Cooke said. “We are also carrying developments on Ares 1 that will be needed on Ares 5 so those costs then go to Ares 5 … There’s some pretty dramatic differences in how this works out in terms of how it’s orchestrated and where you have gaps.”

In spite of the uncertainty, NASA is pressing ahead on the Ares 1 program. Preparations are under way, for example, for a planned July suborbital test flight of a prototype vehicle dubbed Ares 1-X.

At the same time, a commercial alternative for launching space station crews is winning supporters on Capitol Hill and within the space industry. Congress authorized NASA to pursue a crew capability under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which is providing $500 in seed money to two companies developing space station logistics vehicles and the rockets to launch them.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of
, recently won contracts worth $1.9 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively, to deliver cargo to the space station from 2010 through 2016. Both companies have expressed interest in developing crew-carrying variants of their respective systems. Sources said NASA likely would have to shell out an additional $500 million in seed money to get the companies to commit to doing so.

has been planning to include a crew capability on its Dragon spacecraft from the start. Dragon specifications call for accommodating a seven-member crew in addition to cargo.

Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said development of crew escape and life support systems, along with test flights, could be completed in about two years under a COTS-like demonstration program.

“Given that we have the crew ‘hooks’ [built] into the Dragon for cargo, we think 24 months is a good estimate,” she said. “If the developer needs to start from scratch, it is a four- to five-year process.”

While Congress wants NASA to begin pursuing the COTS crew capability, known as COTS D, by April, the space agency cannot move forward until money is allocated for the effort, NASA officials said.