Wolf Insists Return to Moon Should be Next Step and Congress Would Pay For It

Wolf Insists Return to Moon Should be Next Step and Congress Would Pay For It

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) insisted today that the next step for the U.S. human spaceflight program should be a return to the Moon, underscoring once again the lack of consensus on the nation’s future space program.   Another prominent House member insists on a flyby of Mars in 2021, while President Obama wants to go to an asteroid.  Wolf’s enthusiasm for returning to the Moon was coupled with optimism that Congress would increase NASA’s budget to pay for such a goal.

Wolf knows a lot about money and Congress — he chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA.  A veteran lawmaker, he plans to retire from Congress after 17 terms at the end of this year.

In his talk to George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute this afternoon, Wolf lambasted the Obama Administration for everything from a lack of leadership on the space program to the worst human rights record of any recent U.S. administration because of failure to intervene in crises such as Darfur.  In addition to his work on the appropriations committee, Wolf is co-chairman of the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.  A substantial portion of Wolf’s talk today was about human rights abuses in China, Sudan and elsewhere.  China’s poor human rights record is a major reason that Wolf opposes U.S. space cooperation with that country.

Regarding NASA’s future in human spaceflight, Wolf criticized the Obama Administration’s decision to terminate the Bush-era Constellation program that focused on a human return to the Moon by 2020 as a step towards sending humans to Mars.  Scott Pace, Director of SPI and host of today’s event, was a high ranking NASA official when the Constellation program was designed and initially implemented under the leadership of then-Administrator Mike Griffin.

Wolf has been relentless in his criticism of the decision to terminate the Constellation program, ardently arguing that a return to the Moon is a program that would appeal to U.S. taxpayers and international partners alike.   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told Congress last year that the reason the United States is not sending astronauts back to the lunar surface is because it does not have the estimated $8-10 billion needed to build a lunar lander. 

Today, Wolf was asked whether Congress would increase NASA’s budget to pay for a lunar return of if NASA would have to stop doing other activities in order to find the money.  He said that if a President now or in the future announced a plan to return to the Moon, that would be a “game-changer” and lead to increased NASA funding.

The Constellation program, with a human return to the lunar surface as its centerpiece, was cancelled by the Obama Administration after a review by the 2009 Augustine Committee found that it was not affordable unless NASA’s budget was increased by $3 billion per year.  The Bush Administration did not request such increases and while Congress did increase NASA’s budget in some years, it was not by that amount.

The Augustine Committee laid out options for the human spaceflight program, but did not make recommendations.   Months later, the Obama Administration cancelled the Constellation program and instead proposed to augment NASA’s budget over 5 years by $6 billion to invest in game-changing technologies especially in propulsion, extend operations of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020 (from 2015), and use government money to facilitate development of commercial crew systems to take astronauts to and from ISS.  The announcement,  made as part of the FY2011 budget submission on February 1, 2010 rather than as a separate policy statement, stunned and infuriated members of Congress from both political parties.  The President consequently gave a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he announced his vision for the future of the human spaceflight program:  to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to orbit (not land on) Mars in the 2030s.  A human landing on Mars would follow, he said, within his lifetime.

Wolf today decried President Obama’s asteroid mission — currently the
Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) — as “not worthy of a great nation,” a
reference to the Augustine Committee’s report “Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation.”  One option in that report is the “Flexible Path” that includes missions to asteroids and Lagrange points.

Congress and the White House have been battling over the future of the human spaceflight program ever since.  It is less a partisan war between Democrats and Republicans than between Congress — which passed two laws (the 2005 and 2008 NASA authorization acts) supporting the Bush plan — and the White House.

Today, there are three strongly held positions on what the next step should be for the human spaceflight program:   Wolf’s view that we should return to the lunar surface and before China gets there; Obama’s plan for an Asteroid Redirect Mission that very specifically excludes returning to the lunar surface, though there would be operations in lunar orbit; and a concept called Mars 2021 championed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) to send astronauts to flyby (not land on or orbit) Mars with launch in 2021 and incorporating a flyby of Venus enroute.  

Smith chairs the House committee that authorizes NASA activities.  That committee, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, will markup its version of the 2014 NASA authorization bill tomorrow (Tuesday, April 29).  The next day, Wolf’s appropriations subcommittee will markup the companion appropriations bill.  (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See our “What’s a Markup:  Answers to that and Other Mysteries of the Legislative Process” Fact Sheet.)

There is little disagreement (though it is not unanimous) that sending people to land on Mars is the long term goal.   The question is all the steps in between.  Wolf’s support of a human return to the Moon seems as heartfelt as Smith’s insistence on the Mars flyby mission.   Both are influential members of the House — Wolf in charge on money, Smith in charge of policy. 

Where that leaves the Obama plan, which NASA is assiduously trying to articulate as part of achieving the long term goal of sending people to land on Mars, is an open question.  Today Wolf said “No matter how much NASA tries to dress this up or rationalize this proposal to the Congress and to the public, it continues to ring hollow.” 

The disarray in planning the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program continues.  Wolf prognosticated that “most people believe” that whoever becomes President in 2016 will “abandon this uninspiring” ARM mission and “pivot towards more compelling missions.”  Whether that happens and whether Congress is wiling to appropriate the necessary funds is an open question.

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