WASHINGTON - Sen. Bill Nelson said Wednesday that President Barack Obama is the only person who can save NASA's human spaceflight program and that the White House must "pony up" more money if it wants to send astronauts beyond the International Space Station.
The Florida Democrat issued his challenge during the second hearing this week on NASA's manned-space program, which faces major problems after the space shuttle's retirement in 2010 or 2011 and was the subject of a three-month analysis by a presidential space panel.
"I would like to lead the space program, but a senator can't do it. Charlie Bolden, the administrator of NASA, can't lead it," Nelson said. "The human spaceflight program can only be led by the elected leader of this country because he sets the priorities."
Specifically, he said Obama should follow the initial recommendations of his space panel and give NASA at least $3 billion more a year on top of its budget of about $18 billion. But Nelson said he has received no assurances from Obama he would do so.
The White House did not respond directly to Nelson and reissued an earlier statement that said Obama would not chart a course for NASA until the 10-member panel, led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, issues its final report later this month.
Augustine told Nelson's space subcommittee Wednesday that "no rational exploratory program" can be funded under NASA's existing budget. Without more money, he said, the agency could afford only to keep the International Space Station aloft and pay Russia to send astronauts there after the space shuttle is retired.
Nelson and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, continued to press the idea NASA should consider extending the space shuttle past 2011. Right now, NASA's Ares I won't be available to send astronauts into space before 2017.
"I'm hoping that we will be able to extend the shuttle to narrow that gap," Hutchison said.
But Augustine said it would cost an additional $10 billion - on top of the extra $3 billion annual increase for NASA - to keep the shuttles flying until a new spacecraft is ready. "Stopping the shuttle will save a substantial sum of money," he said.
When the shuttle retires, as many as 7,000 job losses are expected at Kennedy Space Center, which is primarily responsible for preparing NASA spacecraft for launch. Under current plans, it will be years before even some of those jobs return.
"The Augustine committee did not treat that (shuttle extension) as a major alternative," Nelson said. "I wish it were. I have confidence in that vehicle."