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Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Future of NASA: Space Policy Issues Facing Congress

Daniel Morgan
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

For the past several years, the priorities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have been governed by the Vision for Space Exploration. The Vision was announced by President Bush in January 2004 and endorsed by Congress in the 2005 and 2008 NASA authorization acts (P.L. 109-155 and P.L. 110-422). It directed NASA to focus its efforts on returning humans to the Moon by 2020 and some day sending them to Mars and "worlds beyond." The resulting efforts are now approaching major milestones, such as the end of the space shuttle program, design review decisions for the new spacecraft intended to replace the shuttle, and decisions about whether to extend the operation of the International Space Station. At the same time, concerns have grown about whether NASA can accomplish the planned program of human exploration of space without significant growth in its budget. 

A high-level independent review of the future of human space flight, chaired by Norman R. Augustine, issued its final report in October 2009. It presented several options as alternatives to the Vision and concluded that for human exploration to continue "in any meaningful way," NASA would require an additional $3 billion per year above current plans. 

In its FY2011 budget request, the Obama Administration proposed cancelling the Constellation spacecraft development program and eliminating the goal of returning humans to the Moon. NASA would instead rely on commercial providers to transport astronauts to Earth orbit, and its ultimate goal beyond Earth orbit would be human exploration of Mars, with missions to other destinations, such as visiting an asteroid in 2025, as intermediate goals. Operation of the International Space Station would be extended to at least 2020, and long-term technology development would receive increased emphasis. 

Committees in both the House and the Senate have held hearings to consider the Augustine report and the Administration proposals. In July 2010, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (H.R. 5781) was reported in the House. In August 2010, the Senate version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S. 3729) was passed by the Senate. As Congress considers appropriations and authorization legislation addressing these broad space policy challenges, it faces choices about 

• whether NASA's human exploration program is affordable and sufficiently safe, and if so, what destination or destinations it should explore; 

• whether the space shuttle program should continue past its currently planned termination in early 2011; if so, how to ensure the continued safety of shuttle crews; if not, how to manage the transition of the shuttle workforce and facilities; 

• whether U.S. use of the International Space Station should continue past its currently planned termination at the end of 2015; 

• whether the currently planned Orion crew capsule and Ares rockets, being developed as successors to the space shuttle, are the best choices for delivering astronauts and cargo into space, or whether other proposed rockets or commercial services should take their place; and 

• how NASA's multiple objectives in human spaceflight, science, aeronautics, and education should be prioritized. 

Date of Report: August 6, 2010
Number of Pages: 43
Order Number: R41016
Price: $29.95

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