To get as­tro­nauts to ISS with­out Rus­sia’s help, agency asks $830M

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Putting a man on Mars re­mains the ul­ti­mate goal for NASA, but the agency faces a more press­ing short-term chal­lenge: free­ing it­self from de­pen­dence on Rus­sia to put U.S. as­tro­nauts into or­bit.

With last sum­mer’s end to the leg­endary spaceshut­tle pro­gram, NASA is re­ly­ing on its Rus­sian coun­ter­part to trans­port Amer­i­can space crews to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS) at an es­ti­mated cost of about $450 mil­lion each year. Through part­ner­ships with pri­vate in­dus­try, the agency plans to end that reliance by 2017, and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed fis­cal 2013 bud­get ded­i­cates un­prece­dented fi­nan­cial re­sources to that ob­jec­tive.

NASA is seek­ing $830 mil­lion, an in­crease of more than 100 per­cent over the pre­vi­ous year’s spend­ing plan, for its com­mer­cial-crew-de­vel­op­ment pro­gram, and agency Ad­min­is­tra­tor Charles F. Bolden Jr. told mem­bers of Congress on Wed­nes­day that with­out the re­quested in­crease in fund­ing, the na­tion’s space pro­gram could be at the mercy of in­ter­na­tional part­ners even longer.

“I’m go­ing to pay the Rus­sians $450 mil­lion a year for ev­ery year that I don’t have an Amer­i­can ca­pa­bil­ity to put hu­mans into low-earth or­bit,” Mr. Bolden told the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on Com­merce, Sci­ence and Trans­porta­tion. “I know you don’t want to do that . . . but that’s the price I pay.”

Mr. Bolden also tes­ti­fied be­fore the House Com­mit­tee on Sci­ence, Space and Tech­nol­ogy on Wed­nes­day and said the agency’s reliance on Rus­sia is the re­sult of poor plan­ning over the past sev­eral years.

“We’ve set our­selves up for 2017 [be­ing the] first avail­abil­ity be­yond the Rus­sians to take crew to the ISS. It’s due to a lack of ex­e­cu­tion be­fore now, and we’re try­ing to cor­rect that,” he said.

NASA is seek­ing a to­tal of $17.7 bil­lion for FY 2013, a de­crease of about $58 mil­lion from FY 2012 ap­pro­pri­a­tions.

With a lower to­tal bud­get and more money ded­i­cated to com­mer­cial-crew ef­forts, the agency wants to re­duce spend­ing for “ex­plo­ration sys­tems de­vel­op­ment,” pro­grams de­signed to carry as­tro­nauts be­yond lower-earth or­bit and set the stage for a re­turn to the moon, an as­ter­oid land­ing and, by about 2035, the first manned mis­sion to Mars.

Spend­ing on ex­plo­ration sys­tems would drop by 7.9 per­cent, or $237.7 mil­lion, un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bud­get pro­posal, and some mem­bers of Congress say the na­tion even­tu­ally could pay the price for those cuts.

“I think the im­por­tant role NASA plays in push­ing in­no­va­tion . . . ar­gues for a big­ger com­mit­ment to the agency than ei­ther the ad­min­is­tra­tion or Congress is cur­rently mak­ing,” said Rep. Eddie Ber­nice John­son, Texas Demo­crat and her party’s rank­ing mem­ber on the House com­mit­tee. “I fear that years from now we are go­ing to ques­tion why we didn’t rec­og­nize how im­por­tant it is to main­tain our in­vest­ments in re­search and in­no­va­tion.”

Mr. Bolden also de­fended the agency’s cur­rent sys­tem of pay­ing for that ini­tia­tive, un­der which NASA funds mul­ti­ple pri­vate com­pa­nies con­duct­ing com­mer­cial-crew re­search and will even­tu­ally se­lect the best two firms to con­tract with for the long term.

Mr. Bolden dis­missed con­cerns from some mem­bers of Congress that NASA is ced­ing too much power to those com­pa­nies by not spell­ing out in con­tracts ex­actly what it wants.

“I pick the win­ner,” Mr. Bolden said. “They know what re­quire­ments they’ll have to meet if we en­ter into a con­tract with them . . . If some­one thinks that they’re go­ing to fool us, or say they’ll put po­lit­i­cal pres­sure on us later be­cause I don’t have a choice, they are sadly mis­taken.”

NASA is also seek­ing a $109-mil­lion in­crease for its planned James Webb Space Tele­scope, bring­ing the project’s FY2013 bud­get re­quest to nearly $628 mil­lion. The tele­scope, a de­scen­dant of the famed Hub­ble Space Tele­scope, is set to launch in 2018 but is al­ready about 900 per­cent over its ini­tial es­ti­mated bud­get.

“Is that tele­scope go­ing to be strong enough to see to the bot­tom of the fi­nan­cial hole that we’ve dug for it?” asked Rep. F. James Sensen­bren­ner Jr., Wis­con­sin Re­pub­li­can.

While ac­knowl­edg­ing the cost over­runs, Mr. Bolden said the project, with all of the data it will pro­vide for the next few decades, is es­sen­tially price­less.

“I don’t think we can at­tach a fi­nan­cial value to this,” he said.

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