White House Seeks To Restore Human Spaceflight Funding

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WASHINGTON — The White House has asked congressional appropriators to restore $670 million cut from NASA’s nearly $4 billion budget request for human space exploration in a version of the 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill the House passed in June, according to congressional and administration sources.

In a September letter to leaders of the House and Senate appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittees, White House science adviser John Holdren asked that the funding be restored in anticipation of a forthcoming presidential decision on NASA’s manned spaceflight future, according to congressional sources. In addition, the White House asked Senate appropriators to stay flexible as the president awaits the findings of a 10-member panel tasked in May to reassess NASA’s post-space shuttle space exploration plans, congressional and administration sources said.  The White House-appointed panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, sent the White House and NASA a summary report Sept. 8 that laid out several alternatives to NASA’s current Moon-focused Constellation program. The full report is not expected to be released until mid-October, NASA’s spokesman for the panel, Robert “Doc” Mirelson, said Oct. 2.

All of the options put forward by the Augustine panel that permit NASA to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit during the 2020s entail increasing the U.S. space agency’s $18.6 billion annual budget by $3 billion in the years ahead.

Over the summer, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) the chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, described the funding reduction the House made to NASA’s $3.96 billion Exploration Systems Mission Directorate budget request for 2010 as a “time-out” in the budget process as lawmakers await a White House decision.

“Reductions from the budget request should not be viewed as a diminution of my support or that of the subcommittee in NASA’s human spaceflight activities,” Mollohan said in a June 4 statement.  Mollohan told Space News in June he expects the administration to deliver a “realistic and sustainable” cost estimate of NASA’s human spaceflight program in time to amend the 2010 budget.

“We want very much for the funding to be an honest and realistic cost assessment,” he said.

But with the Senate expected to vote on its version of the legislation the week of Oct. 5, time is running out. The U.S. government’s 2010 budget year began Oct. 1. Congress passed a one-month continuing resolution Sept. 30 to keep federal agencies running through the end of October.

“Theoretically, [the administration] could do it any time before they pass the appropriation,” one congressional source said. “But it’s just that the clock is ticking.”

The Augustine panel had been expected to release its final report by the end of September. Observers in Congress and the administration say the delay is likely due to Augustine’s desire to firm up analyses underpinning alternatives to Constellation, the agency’s current plan for replacing the space shuttle fleet with a system consisting of the Orion crew capsule and its Ares 1 launcher. The panel plans a public teleconference Oct. 8 to discuss scoring the options. The future of Ares 1 was thrown into doubt when the panel laid out several options for the future of human spaceflight that entailed canceling development of that shuttle-derived rocket and counting on commercial vehicles to carry astronauts into low Earth orbit.

Doug Stanley, the Georgia Institute of Technology engineer who led NASA’s 2005 Exploration Systems Architecture Study that picked Ares 1 and the heavy-lift Ares 5 designs over competing approaches that relied on U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, said that while the Augustine panel’s analysis provides useful budget and policy assessments of options for the future of manned spaceflight, the rapid pace of the review did not allow for a thorough analysis of cost, risk and schedule implications associated with those options.

“I really think we need to do a fairly detailed architecture study as a follow-on to what [the Augustine panel] has done,” Stanley said during a Sept. 28 seminar on the Augustine report at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute here. “The purpose was not to do a detailed architecture study, it was to lay out and look at budget issues and policy issues we’d have to define.”

Stanley said before the White and NASA can select a new space transportation architecture, they need to decide whether the shuttle will keep flying beyond 2010, whether the international space station will remain in orbit through 2020, where the United States wants to send its astronauts in the decades ahead, and define a general policy toward commercial and international transport of astronauts.

Once the White House embraces a direction for U.S. human spaceflight, Stanley said NASA should then be allowed to conduct a thorough architecture study to include apples-to-apples comparisons of the cost, safety and risk of the Augustine panel’s options, as well as alternative scenarios the panel might not have considered. In addition, Stanley urged that NASA be allowed to determine the true cost and risk of commercial crew transport in low Earth orbit.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said.