Science, Tech & Environment

Uncertain future for US space program


Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. (Sean Smith/NASA)

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Story by Megan Huges, CNC News

Members of the science community are anxiously awaiting the president's budget release on February 1. It may signal the future of the entire space program and specifically, the $119 billion Constellation program.

Once the current shuttle program is retired later this year, the Constellation program is the plan that will replace the agency's aging shuttle to ferry astronauts to the moon and Mars. However, a special commission determined this fall that the program was on an "unsustainable trajectory" and would eventually need $3 billion more per year if the United States is going to be able to send anyone to the moon or beyond before 2030.

Glenn Research Center is a NASA facility in Cleveland, Ohio. From thrust vector control to laying the groundwork to test the next shuttle, Glenn plays a big part in space exploration. But the future of human space flight and Cleveland's facility are now uncertain.

Congressional delegations from Florida, Ohio and Texas, which all house NASA facilities, are hoping that President Obama treats NASA like a jobs program.

When they convened at a meeting in Washington, the Ohio delegation had one message for the NASA administrator: "Grow Glenn."
"We're an aerospace state and NASA's got to reflect that and begin to grow in Ohio rather than shifting NASA work to other of the 10 centers," said Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.

Senator Brown sent a letter to President Obama this week asking for investment in NASA Glenn to do research on alternative energy.

Republican Senator George Voinovich says he wants to see more investment in Glenn's Plum Brook testing facility outside of Sandusky. "If we could develop that airfield out there it could make it more accessible to other NASA testing and also frankly commercial testing."

NASA administrator Charles Bolden listened to the requests, but didn't make any promises. He's waiting on the president to release his budget in February.

In his announcement, President Obama is expected to define the next 10-15 years of the space program, particularly human space flight. That makes up 25% of the work at Glenn.

When the shuttle is retired, the U.S. won't be able to carry astronauts into orbit. And a commission concluded that without a big increase in funding, it will stay that way for another 15 or 20 years.
John Logsdon, a member of the NASA Advisory Council, is cautiously optimistic NASA will get more money.

"I believe Barack Obama is an enthusiast of human space flight, that he wants to set forward a long range vision for space exploration," said Logsdon. "But he's also a pragmatic politician and he's probably not well advised to start talking about going to Mars until the healthcare bill gets passed for example."

One casualty of the budget may be the Ares I. It's a launcher being developed to carry crews into low earth orbit. The commission said by the time it's ready, it will no longer be needed. Some of the work is being done in Cleveland.

Longsdon believes even if it's cut, the contracts may be preserved. "There is some attempt to salvage some elements of the work Glenn is doing and use it in the buildup to a heavy lift vehicle which I think is the most likely thing to approve in the president's budget."

NASA's economic impact in Ohio is $1.2 billion dollars. As to whether that number will grow, and when Americans will next land on the moon -- all will be revealed in February.

Created by Bureau Chief and Executive Producer Melinda Wittstock, Capitol News Connection from PRI provides insightful, localized coverage of participating stations' congressional delegations.

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