White House launches review of space flight as NASA at crossroads

A 10-member blue-ribbon panel created by the White House will review whether manned space flight will have run its course with the space shuttle’s scheduled retirement in 2010.

NASA currently plans to replace the shuttle with the Orion spacecraft, part of the Constellation Project that would eventually send astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars. But critics urge NASA to focus more on its robotics program, especially during an era of tightened budgets. Although astronauts have long been the face of the American space program, the two rovers that landed on Mars have arguably brought NASA its most positive publicity in recent years.

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Obama is on record supporting the course set by President Bush with Constellation, but some manned space flight proponents fear that rising budget deficits could put more pressure on the administration to trim the costly mission.

Members of the panel, which is officially known as the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans, said every option will be explored. Former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, who will lead the panel, said the commission will spare no sacred cows in conducting its review.

“We are planning to spend billions of dollars on the space flight program, and it is wise to be sure occasionally whether or not we are spending that [money] the way we should,” Augustine said in a conference call with reporters.

Current and former NASA officials said the review will allow the Obama administration to establish its own priorities for the space program, instead of simply inheriting the Bush administration’s goals.

“It would probably be imprudent on [the administration’s] part not to examine this major of a program, to be sure that such a long-term undertaking is still on a course that makes sense to them,” Augustine said.

“The administration has to do that proper assessment and feel like they own the outcome,” said Sean O’Keefe, a NASA administrator under President Bush. “That’s a very accepted approach.”

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The White House has requested $18.7 billion for NASA programs next year, about a 5 percent increase over its fiscal 2009 budget. The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate — the division of NASA that pursues manned space flights — is set to get the largest increase.

This year’s budget also contains enough money to finish the International Space Station and launch several new satellites aimed at monitoring and researching global climate change.

But it is not clear who will be in charge of spending that money; Obama has yet to name a NASA administrator. Two candidates thought most likely to get the call — Energy Department Chief Financial Officer Steve Isakowitz and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration — have been given other jobs within the administration.

Acting administrator Christopher Scolese, a longtime NASA employee who once served as the agency’s chief engineer, gets high marks for his competence, but observers say the White House needs to appoint a permanent administrator to provide stability.

“I’d sure like to see some determination on leadership and have the administration make a choice there, but nonetheless that’s tempered significantly because you’ve got one of the most competent guys you could ever ask [for],” O’Keefe said of Scolese.

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But there may be larger problems at the agency. Insiders say the budget increase makes up just a fraction of the money the agency had lost in recent budgets. Those cuts have delayed the development of a shuttle replacement. The Orion program is slated to be available sometime in 2015, meaning the United States will be without its own way into space for about five years.

That would be the longest period since the two-and-a-half-year delay in the shuttle program following the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. During the delay, the United States will be dependent on Russia for access to the International Space Station and for other space missions.

“The U.S. should know better than to be depending on another country for access to space,” one former top NASA official said. “That’s just stupid. We are going to regret it deeply.”

Still, maintaining the Space Shuttles Discovery, Endeavor and Atlantis costs NASA $3 billion a year — even if no missions are flown — money that isn’t likely to be added to the agency’s budget. And the Constellation Program is too far along, sources said, for additional capital to speed it up.

Despite Obama’s pledge to pursue a manned mission to the moon within the next 11 years, officials worried his Office of Management and Budget would not come through with the funding needed.

But O’Keefe said he is optimistic about his former agency, as well as about Obama’s commitment to continuing missions beyond the near-earth orbit. And despite not having named a NASA administrator yet, the White House said NASA remains a priority.

“The White House is fully engaged with NASA and we are working closely together on all missions and programs,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said.