On 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight, Congress Still Has Big Aspirations

On 50th Anniversary of Human Spaceflight, Congress Still Has Big Aspirations

Today is the 50th anniversary of humanity breaking the bonds of Earth and reaching Earth orbit for the first time. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on April 12, 1961, opening a new era of exploration. It is also the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the U.S. space shuttle.

As these anniversaries are commemorated, Congress released the text of a bill to fund NASA and the rest of the government through the end of fiscal year 2011 — a “full year” Continuing Resolution (CR). Included are funds and specific direction to NASA to build a new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) with a lift capability of “no less than 130 tons” — a vehicle that would enable astronauts to venture deep into space, possibly someday to Mars.

The debate over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program has been hard fought since President Obama decided to terminate the Constellation program initiated under President George W. Bush that was to take astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 and someday to Mars. Congressional concern that NASA is not following congressional direction in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to build an HLLV expeditiously apparently led to the detailed language in this comnpromise version of a full year CR. Even with this language, however, the debate may not be over if for no other reason than funding.

The total amount of funding for NASA in the bill is $18.485 billion, $239 million less than the agency received in FY2010, and $515 million less than the President requested for FY2011. Congress directed NASA to build a new HLLV (or Space Launch System) and a new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to go with it in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The law authorizes slightly less funding for those programs in FY2011 than is included in the full year CR. Strictly speaking, appropriations are not supposed to exceed authorizations, but just about anything is possible in Congress as long as no one raises a point of order in objection.

Both Congress and the Obama White House want a strong U.S. human spaceflight program. The difference is between how much to rely on the commercial sector versus the government, and the specifics of the new HLLV. NASA wants to start small with a vehicle capable of taking perhaps 70 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and evolve it over time into a more capable vehicle. Congress wants a 130 ton vehiicle capable of taking astronauts beyond LEO — to the moon, asteroids, or Mars. The debate over the launch vehicle’s capability — and thus its design –continues. The language in this CR specifies the vehicle must be 130 tons, but it does not say that must be its “initial” capability, leaving room for interpretation.

What is quite clear, however, is that Congress continues to have bold aspirations for the human spaceflight program, even if the budget is not sufficiently robust to achieve such goals in the near future.

Cooperating with China in space activities is precluded, however. The bill prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any funds to discuss or arrange space cooperation with China unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, is a staunch opponent of space cooperation with China because of human rights abuses and political issues. He has made his position quite clear in many forums over many years, most recently at a March 3, 2011 hearing on the NASA budget. The “no China” language was also part of a previous version of a full year CR (H.R. 1) that failed to pass the Senate.

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