WASHINGTON — A new law passed by Congress last week finally gives NASA some badly needed direction, but the future of the space agency remains bleak — at least in the near term.
The bill cements a new philosophy for the agency that largely bypasses its previous moon mission and instead opts for an approach that relies on commercial spacecraft to ferry cargo and astronauts to the space station so that NASA engineers can concentrate on designing futuristic spacecraft.
Gone is the agency's troubled Constellation moon rocket, effectively replaced by a new heavy-lift rocket that Congress said must be ready for flights to the International Space Station by Dec. 31, 2016, with the capability to someday attempt ground-breaking missions to nearby asteroids.
But even as backers celebrated the 304-118 vote in the House late Wednesday night, a number of fault lines were already apparent.
To build a new heavy-lift rocket and its companion crew capsule, Congress recommended that NASA receive about $11 billion during the next three years — less money than what the Constellation program (which already has cost at least $9 billion) would have received during the same time period.
Engineers at Kennedy Space Center are looking to build a rocket for a test flight in 2014, using the space shuttle's giant orange fuel tank, main engines and solid rocket boosters as mandated by the pending law. But program managers in NASA headquarters are looking at flying the Orion crew capsule as early as 2013 aboard a commercial Delta IV heavy rocket, the kind used successfully by the military to put spy satellites into orbit.
'There are challenges'
The bill does little to stem the brain drain within NASA, though its addition of a third shuttle flight next year extends the life of perhaps 1,500 jobs at Kennedy Space Center. Still, a total of at least 7,000 jobs will be gone within a year. Also facing pink slips are as many as 200 employees at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and 426 Ares rocket workers at Utah rocket-maker ATK, while other NASA centers also fear that they too could be looking at layoffs.
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver acknowledged the short-term issues that confront the agency.
"There is no question there are challenges … with the resources provided and the time line goals," Garver said. "However, we do difficult things, and we will absolutely work with the folks who put this legislation together and who are clearly committed to doing things differently."
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill within the next 10 days. The next step comes later this year, when congressional appropriators actually dole out the dollars to support the new space policy. Though most appropriators have indicated their support, it is unlikely that NASA would get much more in 2011 than its proposed $19 billion budget.
And that's likely to pose real problems for the future of the new heavy-lift rocket, problems that critics highlighted even before the measure passed.
"The Senate bill forces NASA to build a rocket that doesn't meet its needs with a budget that's not adequate to do the job and on a schedule that NASA's own analysis says is unrealistic," said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who unsuccessfully fought to derail the bill in favor of continuing Constellation.
To be sure, Constellation presented its own set of problems. Even if NASA got a significant budget increase, a presidential task force concluded last year that the program's Ares rockets and Orion capsule would have no chance of meeting its goal of a lunar landing by 2020.
Concerns about rocket
Yet, thanks to language inserted in a 2010 spending bill, NASA will be forced to spend about $280 million a month on Constellation until Congress passes its 2011 budget, which won't happen for at least two months, if then.
NASA officials say some Constellation components could be folded into the new heavy-lift rocket, but the design remains very much a work in progress. Even NASA supporters worry that — like previous designs — the rocket will balloon over budget and ultimately wind up canceled.
"I am afraid that … it will be (another) failure … and that would be terrible," said former astronaut John Grunsfeld in August, after the bill cleared the Senate.
Criticism of the plan's viability was echoed Thursday by the Planetary Society, a major space-advocacy organization. Though the group praised Congress for passing a bill that increases funding for NASA, it called the measure "too prescriptive, as it specifies rocket performance and design approaches."
"Let the contractors do their jobs, instead," it said. "We hope the administration and Congress will address these issues in the very near future."
Then there's the proposal within NASA headquarters to test-fly Orion aboard the Delta IV heavy rocket, an existing rocket made by United Launch Alliance, a company jointly owned by Lockheed Martin Corp. and the Boeing Co. A successful flight could then prompt the agency to bypass designing a new rocket.
Unlike the shuttle-based rocket, the Delta IV would not need an army of engineers at Kennedy Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center to design and operate it. It also would not require NASA to roll over its Constellation contracts as the new law requires.