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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Future of NASA: Space Policy Issues Facing Congress

Daniel Morgan
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-267) authorized major changes of direction for NASA. Among these, it called for the development of a new, crew-capable, heavy-lift rocket, and it provided for the development of commercial services to transport NASA crews into low Earth orbit. However, under the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 (P.L. 111-242 as amended by P.L. 111-322), NASA continues to operate under a requirement to proceed with its previous human spaceflight program. Moreover, in a period of fiscal constraint, it is unclear whether future appropriations will match the growing NASA budgets envisioned by the 2010 act. Thus the 112th Congress is likely to continue to closely examine the future of NASA.

Before the 2010 act, NASA’s priorities were 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 approaching major decision points, such as the end of the space shuttle program and key milestones for the Constellation spacecraft development program intended to replace the shuttle. 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 previous plans.

In February 2010, the Obama Administration proposed cancelling the Constellation 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. The 2010 authorization act incorporated many of these proposals, though it retained elements of Constellation and scaled back the proposed emphasis on commercial providers and technology development.

As the 112
th Congress oversees NASA’s implementation of the 2010 act and considers how to address the broad space policy challenges that remain, it faces questions about 
  • whether NASA’s human exploration program is affordable and sufficiently safe, and if so, what destination or destinations it should explore; 
  • how to ensure that new spacecraft for human exploration, both governmentowned and commercial, are developed effectively, despite budget constraints; 
  • how to manage the transition of workforce and facilities as the space shuttle program comes to an end during 2011; 
  • how best to manage and utilize the International Space Station; and 
  • how NASA’s multiple objectives in human spaceflight, science, aeronautics, and education should be prioritized.

Date of Report: January 27, 2011
Number of Pages: 44
Order Number: R41016
Price: $29.95

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