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Obama’s NASA Constellation Cut Sparks Heated Debate

By | February 2, 2010
      [Satellite News 02-02-10] U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to cut NASA’s manned Constellation lunar mission program and invest $6 billion in commercial launch companies to replace the retiring Space Shuttle has drawn sharp divisions between NASA and commercial industry supporters.
          The U.S. Commercial Spaceflight Federation welcomed the President’s decision, which was announced as part of the U.S. government’s 2010 fiscal year budget, released Feb. 1. “The commercial crew initiative will create thousands of new high-tech jobs, help open the space frontier with lower-cost launches and inspire a new generation with high-profile missions. This initiative is on par with the government Airmail Act that spurred the growth of early aviation and led to today’s passenger airline industry, which generates billions of dollars annually for the American economy,” Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said during a conference call.
          Alexander joined a panel of commercial space company CEOs to discuss the benefits that the new budget may bring to the domestic private space industry, which has, in recent years, suffered due to lack of political support and strong international competition. “Investing in commercial spaceflight will allow us to create U.S. jobs rather than continuing to send billions of dollars to Russia to fly our astronauts to space. With so many capable American companies here at home, why would we send all of U.S. human spaceflight to Russia? Let’s create those thousands of jobs right here in the United States,” said Alexander.
          SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, whose company was contracted by NASA in December 2008 to transport supplies to the International Space Station under the COTS program, also voiced support for the President’s budgetary plan while criticizing NASA’s political support. “People should be relieved. It is important to separate comments from vested interests from people who cannot be swayed by any rational argument and believe that the answer has to be that funding continues in their district,” said Musk.
          SpaceX said it will be ready to fly humans into space in three years for about $20 million a seat —opening the door to America’s future as a true space-faring nation. Alexander argued that the capabilities of commercial companies exceed NASA’s ability to meet deadlines and cost requirements. “Commercial crew will reduce the gap in U.S. human spaceflight by using launch vehicles that are either already flying today or are close to launch, such as the Atlas, Taurus and Falcon. To build orbital capsules for these existing launch vehicles is on a comparable level to the Gemini program in the 1960s, which required only about three years from contract signed to the first flight of a crew.”
          Strong opposition to Obama’s NASA program cuts, however, came from both sides of the aisle and from both houses of Congress. U.S. Appropriations Committee member Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said he was troubled by the termination of the Constellation program. “The sheer lack of details on the administration’s plan is frustrating, and I am not satisfied that what the president is proposing to do with these funds is better than simply going forward with the Constellation Program, and I can understand why so many of us in Congress are up in arms. But the introduction of the president’s budget is only the beginning of what will be a very lengthy budget process, and I will do everything in my power to ensure NASA and its 3,500 civil servants and contractors are not forgotten,” Voinovich said in a statement.
          Voinovich was joined by a number Democrats in voicing displeasure over the President’s cuts to NASA. In a statement, Rep. Suzanne Komas (D-Fla.) said that constituents in her state were not happy. “The president’s proposal lacks a bold vision for space exploration and begs for the type of leadership that he has described as critical for inspiring innovation for the 21st century.”
      U.S. House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said that he needed to be convinced in order to approve the budget. “My position would be to continue with the existing program until he can demonstrate there is a better alternative. The burden of proof is on the president,” said Gordon.
          Some commercial companies also joined the President’s critics with their own concerns. ATK, one of NASA’s major contracted manufacturers for the Constellation’s Ares 1-X rocket, defended the program and vowed to fight the decision in a company statement, released Feb. 2. “It is not clear why at this time the nation would consider abandoning a program of such historic promise and capability — with so much invested. Ares is meeting all major milestones. The Ares 1launch vehicle is an innovative and now proven design with an overriding concern for crew safety,” the company said. “In the weeks and months ahead, we are hopeful that the Congress and Administration will work together to deliver a budget that supports a program that capitalizes on the investments the nation has made in the Constellation program, closes the gap in U.S. capability to return to space and best assures continued U.S. leadership in space.”
          Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), however, said that the political opposition may not be enough to change Constellation’s fate. “When the president says that he’s going to cancel Constellation, I can tell you that to muster the votes, and to overcome that, is going to be very, very difficult. We should do this in cooperation, not in combat with the executive branch of government.”
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