NASA chief says Mars is goal, lawmakers express doubt about budget

A handful of lawmakers, including subcommittee member Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), have lambasted the 2011 NASA spending plan as "very radical," as it seems to put more stock in research and development than space exploration.

"Our greatest accomplishment in human space flight were gained because President Kennedy said we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of this decade," Vitter said of the budget during Wednesday's hearing. "President Kennedy didn't say, 'We're going to spend a few billion dollars on some really unique research and development.'"

But Bolden handily dismissed Vitter's criticisms, stressing the space program is still inspiring and effective -- and that the agency ultimately wanted to reach Mars, despite the budget's changes.

He later added the White House's plan to shift funding to research and development was the only way to create the technologies needed to pursue those missions in the near future.

"We were living a hallucination. We had a vision for getting back to the Moon, getting to Mars, getting to other parts of our solar system, but we didn't have the assets to do it," he said of NASA budget until now.

"Its not a radical depart from anything," Bolden said of the new plan, "it's just a change in our [strategy] to get [to Mars]."

But Committee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-Fl.) instead pegged the problem with both the budget and NASA's current mission on the funding process itself.

Reflecting on the NASA budget put in place during President George Bush's second term, Nelson said it was impossible to achieve NASA's ambitious goals when the Office of Management and Budget is "running the space program because it's designing the [NASA]" spending plan.

"I think the president has to step out and take control, and leadership on the goal that has been articulated by the administrator... which is Mars," he said. "If you leave it to OMB when we get there, it's going to be a long time coming. But if you have a presidential decision that it's what we're going to do... and he says, Gen Bolden, make it happen, then things can start popping."