Putting a man on Mars remains the ultimate goal for NASA, but the agency faces a more pressing short-term challenge: freeing itself from dependence on Russia to put U.S. astronauts into orbit.
With last summer's end to the legendary space-shuttle program, NASA is relying on its Russian counterpart to transport American space crews to the International Space Station (ISS) at an estimated cost of about $450 million each year. Through partnerships with private industry, the agency plans to end that reliance by 2017, and the Obama administration's proposed fiscal 2013 budget dedicates unprecedented financial resources to that objective.
NASA is seeking $830 million, an increase of more than 100 percent over the previous year's spending plan, for its commercial-crew-development program, and agency Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. told members of Congress on Wednesday that without the requested increase in funding, the nation's space program could be at the mercy of international partners even longer.
"I'm going to pay the Russians $450 million a year for every year that I don't have an American capability to put humans into low-Earth orbit," Mr. Bolden told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "I know you don't want to do that ... but that's the price I pay."
Mr. Bolden also testified before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Wednesday and said the agency's reliance on Russia is the result of poor planning over the past several years.
"We've set ourselves up for 2017 [being the] first availability beyond the Russians to take crew to the ISS. It's due to a lack of execution before now, and we're trying to correct that," he said.
NASA is seeking a total of $17.7 billion for FY 2013, a decrease of about $58 million from FY 2012 appropriations.
With a lower total budget and more money dedicated to commercial-crew efforts, the agency wants to reduce spending for "exploration systems development," programs designed to carry astronauts beyond lower-Earth orbit and set the stage for a return to the moon, an asteroid landing and, by about 2035, the first manned mission to Mars.
Spending on exploration systems would drop by 7.9 percent, or $237.7 million, under the administration's budget proposal, and some members of Congress say the nation eventually could pay the price for those cuts.
"I think the important role NASA plays in pushing innovation ... argues for a bigger commitment to the agency than either the administration or Congress is currently making," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat and her party's ranking member on the House committee. "I fear that years from now we are going to question why we didn't recognize how important it is to maintain our investments in research and innovation."
Mr. Bolden also defended the agency's current system of paying for that initiative, under which NASA funds multiple private companies conducting commercial-crew research and will eventually select the best two firms to contract with for the long term.
Mr. Bolden dismissed concerns from some members of Congress that NASA is ceding too much power to those companies by not spelling out in contracts exactly what it wants.
"I pick the winner," Mr. Bolden said. "They know what requirements they'll have to meet if we enter into a contract with them ... If someone thinks that they're going to fool us, or say they'll put political pressure on us later because I don't have a choice, they are sadly mistaken."
NASA is also seeking a $109-million increase for its planned James Webb Space Telescope, bringing the project's FY2013 budget request to nearly $628 million. The telescope, a descendant of the famed Hubble Space Telescope, is set to launch in 2018 but is already about 900 percent over its initial estimated budget.
"Is that telescope going to be strong enough to see to the bottom of the financial hole that we've dug for it?" asked Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican.
While acknowledging the cost overruns, Mr. Bolden said the project, with all of the data it will provide for the next few decades, is essentially priceless.
"I don't think we can attach a financial value to this," he said.
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