Crisis of purpose for America’s space program

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

These words from Proverbs are inscribed on the wall of the main hearing room of the House Science and Technology Committee, on which I serve as chairwoman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

Nowhere are the dangers of neglecting the need for vision more evident than in the current state of NASA and America’s civil space program.

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NASA, which recently celebrated its 50th birthday and the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing, pioneered the exploration of space. The agency’s bold reach into the universe launched an era of scientific discovery and burnished the image of the United States as the world’s pre-eminent space faring nation.

This paragon of American achievement, however, faces a crisis of purpose. The future of American dominance in space is at stake, along with our national security, scientific and technological pre-eminence and thousands of good jobs.

Today we are confronted with the stark reality of a gap in American human space flight due to the constraints imposed by a succession of tight budgets.

The Space Shuttle, the workhorse of America’s human space flight program for almost 30 years, soon will fly its final flight. The Constellation program has been underfunded and will likely not be ready before the middle of the decade, leading to a human spaceflight gap of five or more years.

Would-be commercial space companies may offer promise for the future but have yet to even demonstrate cargo flights to the International Space Station, much less fly humans.

It has been 37 years since we last left low-Earth orbit, since our astronauts last explored the solar system. Yet human exploration is a central part of NASA’s mission. More than anything else, sending astronauts into the vast unexplored reaches of our solar system inspires the youth of America.

But such inspiration cannot be accomplished without true vision, careful planning and dedication.

Unfortunately, the president’s budget did not offer a serious path to realizing those dreams. Instead the administration produced a plan that will rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station.

It forces the United States to rely on the same Soyuz spacecraft that raced our Apollo astronauts to the moon and lost. It condemns us to a future of paying Russia for this service, so Russia can pursue its exploration goals.

At the same time, the administration plan would end all work on launch vehicles and crewed spacecraft that would provide us with assured access to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. This 11th-hour plan discards five years and $10 billion of development of the Constellation program and offers little in return.

As conscientious stewards of the American taxpayers dollars, Congress demanded more. In response, the president took the stage last month at Kennedy Space Center and, showing a clear passion for space and a will to compromise, unveiled a new plan.

Unfortunately this new plan creates more questions than answers and seems unworkable within the budget without crippling NASAs other missions. We cannot continue to argue between the president’s plan and the status quo. There must be a third way.

We must develop a plan for NASA that maintains American leadership in space. Such a plan would require clear timelines and destinations for human exploration aligned to budgets that Congress and the president will commit to providing.

Such a plan also would require assured access to the International Space Station on an American spacecraft, and continued commitment to maintaining the critical skills and industrial base of our aerospace sector.

We should encourage a commercial space industry and when it is mature and ready and demonstrably safe, we should transfer the burden of low-Earth orbit spaceflights to the commercial sector so NASA may focus on exploration.

Developing a plan that meets these requirements and fits within the budget will be challenging. That is why I am working hard with my staff and my subcommittee to address the concerns of Americans.

Framed on my office wall is a copy of the Arizona Daily Star from July 21, 1969 announcing that American astronauts had landed on the moon. In the coming decades, I hope to have other equally inspiring achievements by Americans in space to commemorate.

It is my goal that the United States remains the leader in human spaceflight. I have every expectation that our astronauts will make the first human trips to an asteroid, deep into space and ultimately to Mars.

We just need the right plan with the right budget. We can do this.
 
Giffords is chairwoman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.