Welcome all stargazers to the Eastside Astronomical Society Student Blog! I am a high school senior and board member of the society. In this blog I endeavor to bring you the latest news from and my opinions on the Final Frontier. I'm keeping my eyes on government and private space programs so you can keep your eyes on the sky!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Congress's Decision: "Perfecting the Budget"

Well, I watched today's United States Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space hearing on Obama's new budget plan. Chairing the subcommittee was our long-time ally Bill Nelson of Florida, and at his side was David Vitter, the ranking member from Louisiana. Although these two men are from different parties, they had few disagreements today. Both grilled NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the new plan, trying to determine who in the agency or the executive branch proposed this "radical" new direction for NASA. Neither believed that Bolden, whom both complimented on his service and leadership, was primarily responsible for the new direction. Bolden said that he was not at liberty to disclose any "pre-decision" information, acknowledging that the President received information from many sources, including Bolden himself. Bolden also vigorously defended his lieutenant, Lori Beth Garver, whom Vitter believed to be the main source of the new budget request.

Bolden was equally vigorous in defending the new budget proposal. He revealed that NASA's new target would be Mars rather than the Moon, and stated that there was at least implied approval of that assessment. He also argued that a heavy lift vehicle was not currently necessary for doing the research necessary to reach Mars. He further put forth that extending the life of the space station, thus allowing many more years of conversations between astronauts in space and students, would do more to inspire children than planning a mission to Mars. However, when asked about the inevitable layoffs that will result from shutting down the shuttle and Constellation, Bolden grew teary-eyed. He said that he could not imagine how it must feel right now to be a young engineer with a family, and described how one young worker he met feared that they were no longer going to be doing a job that makes a difference. He promised, as he did throughout the hearing, that in the coming months' plans for a bright new future in space for the "NASA family" will be prepared.

The "second panel" to come before the subcommittee included one skeptic and two strong critics of the program. Astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson was probably the most-critical. He feared that commercial vehicles will not receive enough testing in the near future to be a safe way to transport crews to the station. He also brought up the danger of allowing Russia to hold a monopoly on trips to the ISS. As Anatoly Perminov, Russia's equivalent of the NASA Administrator, said, "We have an agreement until 2012 that Russia will be responsible for [flying foreign astronauts to the ISS]. But after that? Excuse me, but the prices should be absolutely different then!" Considering that they are already charging us two-and-a-half times what they charge individuals for a seat on a Soyuz, one can only imagine the markup once we absolutely depend on them.

Michael J. Snyder, an aerospace engineer, was the main representative of the average NASA worker. As he noted, the end of the shuttle program and of Constellation will mean that many experienced NASA employees will be fired. In the time it takes to develop a new program most will have moved to different states and different jobs to support their families, and who's to say how many will want to return to the volatile agency they had left? Snyder argued that the shuttle is a very safe vehicle that should remain in operation until a replacement is available. The new plan should have specific benchmarks and stepping stones to inspire and assure the workforce, and he proposed that a shuttle-based heavy launch vehicle may be the ideal way to get us beyond LEO while preventing a catastrophic loss of intra-agency experience. While I have been skeptical in the past of keeping the shuttle running, and I did write a short and negative review of a shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle, I have to admit that I'd much rather follow Snyder's plan than restart our exploration program from scratch.

A. Thomas Young, a Lockheed Martin retiree, gave some approval of the plan's increased funds for science and technology. However, he noted that most of the extra funds for science will go to earth-observing satellites, while funds for solar research will decrease slightly and funds for planetary and astrophysical research will remain unchanged.

One common theme expressed by these three critics was that NASA no longer had overarching goals. Gibson and Young both quoted passages from the Augustine commission to demonstrate how the new plan differs from that commission's bold vision. Snyder feared that having no clear-cut goals is severely harming morale throughout the space industry, and Young memorably noted that technological innovation without a goal can quickly become, or appear to become, nothing more than "hobby-shop" activities that can easily be canceled in the future. Both Nelson and Vitter appeared to share the concern over the apparent lack of a goal.

However, the remaining panelist to appear before the subcommittee, Miles O'Brien of "This Week in Space," disagreed with his fellow panelists. He found Obama's new direction to be a "grown-up" strategy for exploring space, as opposed to looking back on the glory days of Apollo. He believed that a lack of communication of the positive aspects of the program, coupled with public apathy and mainstream-media confusion, led to a "perfect storm" that has ruined the new plan's reputation. O'Brien argued that the best thing NASA can do is to "get out of the way" of companies headed for LEO so that we can move towards actually sending everyday people into space. He argued that public disinterest in NASA is mainly due to the fact that NASA flights only fly astronauts, and compared John Q. Public's minimal interest in the Moon program to the excitement so many felt watching the flights of SpaceShipOne. While I admire and share much of O'Brien's idealism in this area, I doubt that SpaceX or Orbital Sciences will be launching anyone but millionaires and (maybe) government astronauts into orbital space anytime soon.

Ultimately, the decision rests with Congress. However, it appears as though Obama's plan will be modified to address the concerns of critics. Senator Nelson noted multiple times that Congress now has the opportunity to "perfect" the plan. He even proposed an idea similar to one I suggested in an earlier blog, saving the Orion capsule and the heavy-lift launch program. When the issue of funding for these programs was considered, Nelson suggested that a large portion of the $2.5 billion required to close the Constellation program could be utilized for a heavy-life launch vehicle development program.

Regardless of what happens, I'll deliver the latest news on NASA's new direction as I get it. Keep reading!

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