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NASA’s New Plan Faces Stiff Opposition

The agency’s budget proposal faces a rough ride in congress.

Last week, the White House Committee on Science and Technology held two hearings to discuss NASA’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget. More details on the proposed spending were also released earlier in the week.

Some congressional members are questioning NASA’s new direction, which calls for the Constellation program and the development of the Ares I rocket to be canceled, and for the agency to rely instead on commercial rockets to ferry astronauts into orbit. These members argue that such drastic changes could threaten America’s leadership, and the very existence of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

NASA administrator, Charles Bolden Jr., has said that Mars remains the ultimate goal of human space exploration, and that the new program is designed to make it possible to send astronauts there sooner. But even with an “infinite pot of money”, he said, humans could not reach Mars within ten years.

The concerns discussed during the congressional meetings focused on the plans’ lack of a clear objective, and the assumption that a commercial rocket is better than a government built system, according to Aviation Week.

Bart Gordon, the democrat representative from Tennessee and chairman of the House science panel, said he fears that the companies that take over U.S. crew transport operations will become “too important to fail,” and could require government bailouts, according to the Aviation Week report.

Antonio Elias, executive vice president and general manager for Advanced Programs at Orbital Sciences, one of two private companies that currently has an agreement with NASA to develop a capsule to carry cargo to the space station, says there is misinformation about the commercial industry. “We have the technical capability because [private industry] has been building spaceflight systems for NASA since the agency’s existence,” he says.

Elias’s company has been working on the launch-abort system for the Orion capsule, the crew capsule being developed under the Constellation program. But Elias adds that neither the government nor the commercial space sector can do their job by themselves. “The government has the crucial and key expertise for spaceflight, and the building of these systems is done by the commercial sector.”

Some congressional members are frustrated with the administration for not making a plan sooner and for not consulting more outside experts. According to FloridaToday.com the committee’s top Republican, Representative Ralph Hall of Texas, called the budget “ill-conceived” and said it provoked reactions of surprise, frustration, and anger among NASA supporters.

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