- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010

President Obama’s decision to kill the U.S. government’s manned space flight program and quash a planned mission to the moon ran into bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Republicans and Democrats alike on the House Science and Technology Committee - many with major space-program facilities in their districts - expressed dismay with Mr. Obama’s decision, included in his proposed fiscal 2011 budget for NASA released earlier this month.

Rep. David Wu, Oregon Democrat, called the decision “premature” and asked whether Mr. Obama’s cuts “doom us to a future where there are no Americans in space or at least that the dominant language in space is not English.”

Added Texas Republican Rep. Michael T. McCaul, “I’m concerned about human space-flight mission being completely cut from this program. It seems to me that we’re getting away from the core mission of NASA.”

Mr. Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget actually calls for a slight spending increase for NASA over the next five years, but not nearly enough to fund the estimated $81 billion Constellation program, established under President George W. Bush and aimed at returning U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Critics say the Constellation program has been plagued by budget and technical problems. Mr. Obama’s NASA budget envisions a new direction for the U.S. space program, relying heavily on private companies to deliver astronauts into orbit.

The immediate target of the lawmakers’ ire was new NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle pilot himself. Mr. Bolden defended the cancellation of the Constellation program and the agency’s new marching orders.

“I consulted with the president, I played an integral part,” Mr. Bolden said after several members expressed their frustration with the decision. “I wish I could blame it on somebody else, but somebody’s got to take the blame.”

It was the second straight day of grilling on Capitol Hill for the NASA chief, who took heat from a Senate panel the day before on the controversial cuts. The hearings were the first public opportunity for lawmakers to question the new NASA budget.

Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, told Mr. Bolden Wednesday he would fight Mr. Obama’s new space blueprint “with every ounce of energy I have.”

Several House lawmakers Thursday disagreed with the proposed commercialization of space flights, under which NASA would contract private companies for astronaut transportation to the International Space Station. The budget includes new funds to upgrade and extend the space station’s life span until 2020 or beyond.

“I was against privatization in the Bush administration, and I’m against it in the Obama administration,” Mr. Wu said. “I think that you all are running a huge risk.”

Rep. Ralph Hall, Texas Republican, said in a statement that NASA cannot ensure that safety with “commercial systems will be equal” to Constellation.

Mr. Bolden said he wants more experienced companies in the aerospace industry to become involved in NASA’s program, especially since a trip to Mars is his “ultimate goal.”

Mr. McCaul argued that $11.5 billion will ultimately be sunk into the Constellation program, including termination fees. He said that agreeing to Mr. Obama’s cuts would send the message that “human space flight is not the priority anymore, but rather climate change and weather observation.”

Many members cited the loss of jobs the cancellation of Constellation would create in their districts. But Mr. Bolden said he hoped to minimize the impact of any cuts.

“This is more than just jobs,” Mr. Bolden said. “I share everyone’s concerns. It is my intent that this budget will allow us to cross-train people.”

Space and aeronautics subommittee chairwoman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, said the space agency’s ability to inspire young Americans must also be considered.

“As members of Congress, and as Americans, we must refuse to let that dream fade,” she said.

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