NASA’s human space flight program is worth saving

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In February, the Obama administration announced its fiscal year budget, which proposed to eliminate the NASA human space flight program, called Constellation, and instead rely on the commercial space industry and other countries to ferry future astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

The president says that his plan is fully committed to the mission of NASA, but I, and many of my colleagues, believe that his proposal will forfeit America’s leadership in space and unnecessarily cut thousands of jobs across the nation at a time when we are trying to recover from a recession.

The Obama administration proposes to “lease” rides on commercial rockets in order to send cargo and crew to the ISS. The problem with this is that the U.S. taxpayer will have to fund almost the entire cost of developing that fleet of new “taxis” and the administration has set no minimum percentage for which commercial companies must provide.

As the biggest NASA policy change in 50 years, this approach warrants, at a minimum, a transition process, not an abrupt leap of faith. The plan would also cost $4 billion or more in unnecessary shutdown costs.  And no one knows how long it will take to rate new rockets and capsules safe for human crew flights to space.

Since the time of the president’s budget announcement, NASA has canceled the awarding of contracts or put on hold parts of numerous contracts which were a part of the fiscal year 2010 work for the Constellation program even though Congress has not voted on this plan yet. In fact, Congress just last year put explicit bill language in support of the Constellation program in the spending bill that provided funding for NASA .

Because of this, I introduced the “Protecting Human Space Flight Act of 2010” (H.R. 5614) this week. This bill directs NASA to use FY2010 Exploration appropriated funds for their intended purpose – to work on the Constellation program. NASA’s assumption that the president’s proposal will become law is a gambling game of billions of taxpayer dollars and is already disrupting key engineering teams in the private contractor community.

Another problem with the president’s plan is that it blurs the line between service flights to the ISS and human space exploration.  The next four fiscal years of his budget actually decrease the exploration budget by $5.7 billion dollars.  Americans know that human spaceflight and exploration beyond earth is NASA’s one irreplaceable mission. I strongly support the robotic successes of NASA but I don’t believe they should replace human exploration for the next few decades.

During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in May, the first and last Americans to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11 Commander) and Eugene Cernan (Apollo 17 Commander), spoke in strong opposition to President Obama’s plans, arguing that the president’s plan lacks specifics and proper review for human space flight.

Surprisingly, some Americans take for granted our world-leading aerospace industry.  Some have called for NASA to be downsized in the name of cutting spending. I am a fiscal conservative, yet we must be aware that NASA has had two decades of almost flat budgets, compared to large percentage increases for other federal agencies.

Any supporter of our national defense should also support a robust space program.  We must never let another nation dictate the terms of our access to space.  Meanwhile, the research done by the Department of Defense and by NASA continues to provide both national security, and also some of the most immediately practical applications of science, from communications technology to health research.

The president’s 2011 proposal is not unified by any near-term space-exploration goal.  Hoping for magic breakthroughs in technology and pushing human missions out 20 to 25 years is a program unworthy of this great nation.  Constellation was selected as the most affordable and safest approach to allow humans to service the station, build health and safety expertise with a near-term moon mission, thus laying the foundation for exploration to distant destinations, including Mars.

The many years of a nearly flat NASA budget mean that the dismantling of Constellation, after four years of successful work, could set us back for 10 years or more. Numerous members of both parties in Congress have leveled strong criticisms at this new plan. In the coming months, I look forward to working with the Science Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and hopefully the Administration, to ensure that NASA remains a world-leading aerospace entity with a strong human space flight program.

Rep. Robert Aderholt is serving his seventh term as the U.S. Representative of the Fourth Congressional District of Alabama.