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Congress Returns To Face NASA Funding Controversies

By | January 14, 2008

      Export Controls Also May Be Debated In Session

      Congress is returning to Capitol Hill to decide funding issues for the U.S. space program, controversies that began last year.

      Debates will center on a wide array of topics, from money for space programs to export controls on satellites and other sensitive-technology items shipped to China.

      Those issues include whether to provide $1 billion to NASA to help it recover from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

      Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee commerce, justice and science subcommittee, last year pushed the $1 billion appropriation language through her own panel, through the full committee and then through the Senate, only to see it fail in a House-Senate conference committee.

      But the feisty legislator issued fair warning that she isn’t giving up on her goal, and will be back this year to press it yet again.

      She has won such battles before. A persistent, dogged defender of the space program, Mikulski and others pressed for years to win funding for repair of the Hubble Space Telescope before it finally gained approval.

      Another issue is whether to provide billions more in funding that would permit continued flights of space shuttles beyond their currently mandated Sept. 30, 2010, retirement date, while simultaneously providing funds to permit an acceleration of the Constellation Program, so that the next-generation Orion-Ares U.S. spacecraft replacing the shuttles could see its first manned flight in 2014 or 2013, instead of in 2015 as now envisioned.

      Perhaps some hint of where these issues will go this year will be seen Feb. 4, when President Bush unveils and sends to Congress his budget plan for the next fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009.

      The crux of the shuttle and Orion-Ares situation is that under current plans, the United States for half a decade will lose the ability to send its astronauts even to low Earth orbit, much less to the moon, Mars and beyond, a yawning gap that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has termed "unseemly."

      But by ending the shuttle flights in 2010, the government can save money that in turn can be used to finance the development of Orion-Ares.

      Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, and others see that five-years gap as threatening U.S. space prowess.

      When the U.S. space program decades ago shifted from the 1960s and 1970s Apollo moon-exploration program to the 1980s space shuttle low Earth orbit program, a gap of years saw many highly talented people, including engineers and scientists, drift away to other areas and programs.

      There is concern that the looming half-decade gap between the shuttles and Orion-Ares would see the same losses, especially if a lack of funding for space missions means that senior personnel lose their jobs.

      As well, in the years after shuttles are grounded, when the United States isn’t able to fly to space, the nation that put men on the moon would be dependent on Russia to carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, along with possible space transport service by Japan, Europe or private commercial companies. (NASA this year is expected to select a second private space-transport firm to mentor as it attempts to develop space logistics-supply capabilities for the space station.)

      So Weldon last year introduced legislation that would shorten the gap in U.S. spaceflight capabilities, both by extending shuttle space, and hastening development of Orion- Ares.

      That current planned half-decade gap "short-changes America’s space program and those dedicated to assuring America’s leadership in space exploration," according to Weldon.

      The bill would give "NASA … the resources to fully fund development of Constellation while also enabling continued operation of two shuttle flights per year between 2010 and 2015, or until Orion is operational," Weldon stated.

      The United States shouldn’t be spending millions on having Russia provide space flights when that same money could be spent on American craft heading into space, according to Weldon.

      Russia has opposed the United States on some key issues, including threats to launch military attacks on any Ground-based Midcourse Defense ballistic missile shield that the United States installs in Europe. A radar in the Czech Republic and silos with interceptor missiles in Poland would provide protection for Europe from any nuclear-tipped missiles launched by Middle Eastern nations such as Iran.

      Another key consideration for Congress is that even if all the planned space shuttle missions lift off and execute their assignments without a hitch, some major planned space program advancements won’t ever make it to space if the shuttle fleet retires on schedule in 2010.

      To be sure, those opposed to extending shuttle flights say the shuttles embody decades-old technology, and are complex and at times difficult machines, with questionable safety.

      But those in favor of extending shuttle operations say that always was, to some extent, true, and yet one can’t escape the fact that only the shuttles have the size and power to lift large objects to orbit. Orion-Ares won’t have that much muscular capability.

      As for export controls, some in the aerospace industry seek streamlined controls, arguing that too strict controls can mean that U.S. firms lose out to overseas companies not subject to those restrictions.

      But some lawmakers say that U.S. technological expertise could be compromised, falling into the wrong hands overseas.

      They question what could happen if, say, a U.S. satellite is shipped to China for launching there, and Chinese experts are able to ferret out its technology, and use that for Chinese military programs.

      American satellites, in that scenario, are supposed to be guarded until launch to ensure that such a lapse doesn’t occur.

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