The future value of NASA depends on priorities

Last year, Congress passed and the President signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The bill directed NASA to give priority to the development of a Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to replace the retiring Shuttle. The bill also authorized NASA to “help determine the most effective and efficient means of advancing the development of commercial crew services.” NASA’s FY12 request flips the relative priority, seeking a 70 percent increase for commercial crew ($850 million versus $500 million authorization); and a 31 percent decrease for the SLS and MPCV ($2.8 billion versus $4 billion authorization).

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a recent hearing that NASA would not need exploration capabilities until after 2020, although Congress clearly directed NASA to develop the heavy lift system with an initial capability to return to the International Space Station by 2016.  Failure to do so will result in continued reliance on the Russians’ Soyuz to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. This is unacceptable. NASA should give highest priority to developing the SLS and MPCV programs that build on the tremendous investments that have already been made in the Constellation systems. We cannot, as the NASA Administrator suggests, wait until 2020.

Meanwhile, the commercial space companies will have the opportunity to continue to develop the capability to ferry cargo to the ISS, as provided in the authorization bill enacted into law last year. Ultimately, perhaps they will demonstrate their capability also to safely transport astronauts. Space exploration, however, is too important to be placed at risk for failure, so we must continue to support a robust program at NASA, which has a record of success.

We must also take the current economic realities into consideration. We cannot afford to go to Mars if Americans cannot afford to go to the grocery store. But we must begin working toward those goals. Technology development programs at NASA are most successful when they are goal-oriented, and NASA needs clearly articulated exploration goals in order to make the best use of taxpayer investments. 

For more than 50 years, NASA has spawned scientific discoveries and spinoffs, and the next 50 will be just as valuable. As chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, I will continue to push NASA to adhere to congressional direction and follow the priorities that are now the law of the land. If we want to remain the world leader in space, the administration must work together with Congress to provide vision, direction and goals to inspire the next generation.

Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) is the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.