Congress & NASA at odds on where astronauts should go next

Nasa-logoNASA wants to send astronauts to an asteroid.  Republicans in the House disagree, and have removed any funding for such a mission from the budget under consideration.  Instead, they want a sustained human presence on the Moon and the surface of Mars (but one that will have no cost).

Is there nowhere that our current broken political system cannot touch – and cause damage?

The story from the Tribune Company after the jump:

WASHINGTON — Where should NASA astronauts go next?

That’s been the question for the past decade, when President George W. Bush ordered a since-canceled mission to return Americans to the moon. And disagreement over the answer continues to paralyze U.S. space policy, as shown by a new battle that pits U.S. House Republicans against the White House and Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

The latest controversy began this spring when the Obama administration unveiled plans to blast astronauts to an asteroid. Specifically, the program would send a robot to capture a 25-foot asteroid and drag it near the moon, so future astronauts could visit it as early as 2021.

But top Republicans on the House science committee are opposed. They announced legislation Wednesday that denied funding for such a program — which has been estimated to cost about $2.6 billion — and instead backed plans for what the bill called a “sustained human presence on the Moon and the surface of Mars.”

In explaining the decision, U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., who chairs the space subcommittee and helped write the bill, said the asteroid mission was a “costly and complex distraction” to NASA’s long-range exploration goals.

But he offered little to no explanation as to what the committee meant by a “sustained human presence” on the moon and Mars — or how much those missions could cost.

“It’s yet to be determined,” Palazzo said. “We’re going to leave that to the scientists and to NASA and to the experts to tell us what we can and cannot achieve.”

For NASA, the answer to that question might well be “nothing.”

As written, the House bill would give the space agency about $16.9 billion next year — roughly $800 million less than what President Barack Obama has proposed. Most of the cuts, about $650 million, would come from NASA’s Earth Science Division, sponsor of climate-change studies that have drawn the ire of Republicans.

But broadly, there’s little difference between the two budgets — and that angers space analysts, who say the manned-space program is paralyzed by lack of funding.

“The [space] program is more screwed up now than any time in the 40-plus years I’ve been observing” U.S. space policy, said John Logsdon, a space expert who served on the Columbia accident board. He said NASA has “muddled” along for decades with inadequate funding.

The House and administration budgets both fund the International Space Station at $3 billion annually, and each devotes about $3 billion toward building a big new rocket and space capsule, which could be ready to launch astronauts in 2021.

Neither, however, leaves room to do much else in human exploration.

A lack of money is a principal reason why the administration has argued for the $2.6 billion asteroid mission as a cost-effective way to prepare for an eventual mission to Mars. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said as much at a congressional hearing earlier this year when he estimated that going to the moon would be three times as expensive.

Nelson has made the same argument, labeling the plan by House Republicans to cut the asteroid mission as “ridiculous” while warning against further cuts to NASA’s budget. If GOP lawmakers “want to play footsie with the tea party, you might as well say sayonara to our manned space program,” he said Wednesday.

And Thomas Young — a veteran of NASA and Lockheed Martin who testified Wednesday before the House science committee — was blunt when he was asked to estimate the date in which the agency could mount a manned mission to the Red Planet.

“With the current budget … I would probably say never,” Young said.

mkmatthews@tribune.com or 202-824-8222

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