Unused NASA tower epitomizes brewing fight over space budget

NASA's completed, $500 million space rocket launcher could go to waste if lawmakers heed the White House's request and nix the agency's manned space-flight plans.

The end to the Constellation program, as outlined in President Barack Obama's 2011 budget, also means the end of the still-incomplete Ares I rocket -- the vehicle that prompted NASA to construct its 355-foot Florida tower in the first place, The Washington Post discovered this weekend.

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Ultimately, the tower could still be reconfigured for other uses, provided lawmakers appropriate NASA more money for needed changes. However, the tower dilemma nonetheless seems to underscore the growing tension between the White House, congressional lawmakers and NASA researchers over the president's 2011 space budget.

Obama, with the support of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, argue the end of the Constellation program would free up more federal dollars for use in research and development.

Current technology cannot support a trip to Mars, so the White House's proposed change in NASA's funding structure might actually improve the agency's ability to launch manned space-flight missions, Bolden said at a hearing last month.

"If you gave me an infinite pot of money, I could not get a human to Mars in the next ten years, because there are some things we just don't know," he told a Senate committee. He later explained the technology does not yet exist to sustain human space travel for months.

Lawmakers, however, have reacted less than enthusiastically to the president's plans. A handful of Democrats and Republicans, mostly those from states that house key NASA bases, have said they fear the budget proposal would leave the space agency without a mission.

"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," Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said in February. "President Kennedy didn't say, 'We're going to spend a few billion dollars on some really unique research and development.'"

Ultimately, the White House's budget will require congressional approval. But sensing a possible political fight, Obama announced last month he would join NASA researchers at a space conference in Florida next month -- not far from the launch tower that remains unused, the Post reported on Sunday