NASA Seems Onboard with Senate Commerce Bill

NASA Seems Onboard with Senate Commerce Bill

Although some view the Senate Commerce committee’s NASA authorization bill as a sharp divergence from the Obama plan, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver gave an interview to the Houston Chronicle in which she conveyed that NASA thinks it’s a good bill. She did not endorse it entirely, saying that “We continue to work with the Congress,” but she complimented the committee’s leadership and said “What’s nice is that this is a collaborative effort now and we think this is a great place to start. It accomplishes the major shifts the President set out to have for the space program.”

The comments are somewhat surprising since the bill would:

  • delay the commercial crew program — the centerpiece of the Obama human spaceflight plan — and build a parallel government-owned, NASA-managed system to serve as a backup to the commercial system(s),
  • adds one more shuttle mission (the “Launch on Need” mission) that extends the life of the shuttle program,
  • require development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLLV) beginning in FY2011 instead of FY2015 as in the Obama plan,
  • require development of a crew exploration vehicle based on Orion that is capable of taking people to and beyond low Earth orbit as the Orion program was originally designed to do instead of building only a “lifeboat” version of it, and
  • taking the money for the HLLV and crew exploration vehicle largely from the “game-changing” technology initiatives in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate loudly touted by NASA and the White House.

The bill does support parts of the Obama plan, such as extending the International Space Station at least until 2020 and supporting the commercial crew concept, even if not buying into it as the only future route to low Earth orbit for U.S. astronauts. It is a compromise, and it is encouraging that the administration is willing to compromise in order to extract NASA from the chaos in which it has been embroiled since February. Why the Obama Administration chose to startle NASA’s friends in Congress and industry with its February 1 budget rollout, why it has done such a poor job of selling it, and why it is so apparently eager to compromise just six months later, will make a good Ph.D. thesis someday.

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