Star wars Obama's space plan

Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The following editorial firstappeared in the Orlando Sentinel:

With Atlantis' liftoff Friday from Kennedy Space Center for its final journey, the space shuttle program moves closer to the end of nearly three decades in operation - unless some members of Congress can outmuscle President Obama and wrest a reprieve for the program.

It's part of an ongoing struggle over the space plan that Obama unveiled in February, and came to the Space Coast to promote in a speech almost a month ago. The stalemate over the fate of the shuttle and other elements in the plan threatens to immobilize NASA, wasting time and money when both are in chronically short supply in the space program.

We'll miss the shuttle, and the thousands of high-paying jobs it supports on the Space Coast. But we hope those lawmakers who would extend the program don't succeed.

The shuttle is a hazardous vehicle, as the disasters in 1986 and 2003 showed. It depends on decades-old technology. Prolonging the program would tie up billions of dollars that could be invested in developing more-advanced vehicles. NASA has worlds to explore beyond low-Earth orbit, the realm of space shuttles.

So we support that part of Obama's plan - retiring the shuttle after two more flights, as soon as November. In addition, we endorse the idea of keeping the International Space Station in orbit at least until 2020, and using commercial rockets to ferry cargo, and eventually crew, to the outpost.

Obama's plan also calls for abandoning NASA's next manned program, Constellation, and its goal of reaching the moon by 2020 for a new program that would aim for farther destinations. But the best the president has promised is that astronauts would be reaching asteroids sometime in the mid-2020s, and flying around Mars sometime in the 2030s.

Those goals are so distant, they're almost meaningless. Such a time lag would put at risk America's legacy ofleadership in manned spaceexploration.

At the other extreme, some members of Congress whose districts or states are counting on jobs from Constellation are fighting any changes at all in the program. This position, held by Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and others, ignores cost overruns, design flaws and delays that have plagued the program.

NASA already has invested more than $9 billion in Constellation. The program has been hampered in large part by problems with its Ares I rocket. Last year a commission of space experts appointed by the president suggested NASA could develop an alternative rocket rather than abandon the entire Constellation program. Engineers have been working on other designs that might fly sooner and cheaper.

Even so, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has called for the agency to revive test flights of Ares I. He insists the tests could be used in developing a different rocket, but they would also preserve a few hundred jobs at Kennedy Space Center.

Such efforts in Congress to reject or revise the president's plan have left NASA in a holding pattern, uncertain of whether to maintain or close out old programs, and whether to launch new ones. Keeping multiple possibilities open means the space agency can't focus its efforts and resources. A resolution may not come till the end of the year, when lawmakers give final approval to the 2011 budget.

That's far too long for space policy to be in limbo. There's room for a reasonable compromise - perhaps keeping Constellation with a different rocket, or moving up the timeline for a new manned program.

The sooner that Congress and the White House work it out, the sooner that NASA - and America's space program - can move ahead.

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