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NASA unveils sweeping new programs

Leading up to a major "space summit," agency proposes shift to commercial manned rockets and development of tech to enable deep space exploration.

One week before President Obama is scheduled to attend a major "space summit" in Florida, NASA unveiled sweeping new programs Thursday designed to implement the administration's proposed shift to commercial manned rockets and development of new technologies to enable eventual deep space exploration.

The president's fiscal 2011 budget request, which would cancel the Bush administration's Constellation moon program, does not specify a long-range target for manned exploration or a timetable for moving beyond low-Earth orbit, factors that have generated widespread criticism.

But NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander, defended the agency's new direction Thursday, saying the president's controversial "vision" is, unlike past programs, affordable and sustainable.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden looks out at window of the Launch Control Center Monday during the launch of the space shuttle Discovery and the start of the STS-131 mission at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA/Bill Ingalls

"This budget provides an increase to NASA at a time when funding is scarce," he said. "It will enable us to accomplish inspiring exploration, science and R and D, the kinds of things the agency has been known for throughout its history."

While deep space targets are not specified, the budget "enables NASA to set its sights on destinations beyond Earth orbit and develop the technologies that will be required to get us there, both with humans and robots," Bolden said.

"We're talking about technologies that the field has long wished we had but for which we did not have the resources," he said. "These are things that don't exist today but we'll make real in the coming years. This budget enables us to plan for a real future in exploration with capabilities that will make amazing things not only possible, but affordable and sustainable."

But even with increased funding, the looming retirement of the space shuttle and the proposed cancellation of Constellation will mean nearly 10,000 lost jobs at the Kennedy Space Center alone and thousands more at other NASA centers and communities.

"A very serious and real concern for everyone is the jobs," Bolden agreed. "But this is what we call progress, Unfortunately, If you look at every area of technology in this country, as you advance there are fewer and fewer manual-type jobs. That's what happens when you advance technology.

"We're doing everything within our power...to help everybody understand we're expanding the amount of programs we have so that we can try to put people to work who are interested in being a part of the space program. Are we going to be able to employ everybody that used to work in shuttle? No, we're not. But that was never a vision."

Constellation cancelation
In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, President Bush decided to complete the space station and retire the shuttle by 2010. At the same time, he directed NASA to begin development of new rockets, capsules and landers to carry astronauts back to the moon by the early 2020s. NASA came up with the Constellation program to implement those directives, spending some $9 billion over the past five years.

During the presidential campaign, Obama expressed support for Constellation but after the election, he set up a panel of outside experts to review NASA's plans and how much they might ultimately cost.

The panel concluded NASA could not afford to implement Constellation, or any other reasonable exploration program, without an additional $3 billion or so per year, primarily to make up for earlier budget reductions.

The group favored a shift to commercial launch services to carry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit while NASA focused on development of a new heavy-lift rocket system that would enable eventual flights to the moon, nearby asteroids, or even the moons of Mars.

The Obama administration agreed with the idea of commercial launch services, but it did not specify any long-range destinations or timetables, focusing instead on development of enabling technologies.

Obama funding request
The administration's $19 billion fiscal 2011 budget request for NASA would pump an additional $6 billion into the agency's budget over the next five years to kick start development of a new commercial manned spaceflight capability.

During a teleconference Thursday, Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver unveiled how some of that money will be spent, assuming Congressional approval, and which NASA centers would be responsible for implementing the new programs.

At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the International Space Station program is managed and where astronauts are trained, a flagship technology demonstration program office would be established, receiving $424 million in fiscal 2011 and $6 billion over the next five years.

The program would be responsible for flight tests of new technologies such as autonomous rendezvous and docking, in-orbit refueling, and inflatable habitat modules. JSC also will continue to manage the space station program and work with the Kennedy Space Center on development of commercial manned spacecraft.

Asked if Johnson will give up its role in astronaut training and mission design as the agency shifts its focus to private-sector launch services, Bolden said he envisions a multifaceted approach.

"At NASA, we provided astronauts for exploration," he said. "A lot of that exploration and experimentation today and in the future will be done on the International Space Station. So what we are doing is relying on commercial capability to get us access to low Earth orbit, to get us to the International Space Station.

"But to get to places like the moon and Mars and other beyond LEO places, that, we feel, is the responsibility of your government. Because that's risky, that's an investment that we can't really count on a commercial entity taking until we've demonstrated the ability to do that and do it safely."

At Kennedy, the commercial crew development program office would manage $500 million in fiscal 2011 and $5.8 billion over the next five years to encourage development of a new private-sector launch industry. The deputy manager of the flagship technology demonstrations program would be based at Kennedy and a new program office will manage $1.9 billion over five years to upgrade and modernize the launch infrastructure.

At the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., $3.1 billion would be spent over the next five years for heavy lift propulsion research and technology development to come up with designs for new rockets that can lift the large payloads needed for deep space exploration.

While the new plan for NASA does not specify a long-range target for exploration, Bolden said Mars is the ultimate objective. But getting there, he said, will require the new technologies that NASA's new approach is designed to develop.