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Politics

NASA Defenders Getting Creative

Congress aims to save the Constellation rocket, despite Obama's opposition.

Space exploration champions in Congress aren’t about to let the sun go down on NASA’s deep space Constellation rocket program, even though the Obama administration wants to put the costly project in a deep freeze.

Count on NASA backers using several creative arguments in coming months to keep more than $1 billion a year in funding alive for the rocket program. And as an ace in the hole, they’ll use the national security card, insisting the program is vital to the nation’s defense. In Washington, raising national security flags is often a good way to save any federal program from budget cuts. It’ll be true with the Constellation, too, which could ultimately cost $150 billion over 25 years and provide years of work to dozens of aerospace contractors in many states.

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The Obama administration wants to scrap Constellation, intended to replace the 30-year old space shuttle program, and let commercial space companies begin taking responsibility for lifting humans and heavy cargo into space. The administration also wants to cancel the related Moon-Mars mission, saying costs could be prohibitive and the scientific benefits minimal.

But the White House argument isn’t getting off the ground very well. Too many in Congress with vested interests in keeping Constellation alive call the Obama plan shortsighted and say it’s the equivalent of ceding space work and upcoming deep space exploration to Europe, Russia, India, China and South America. They also say the U.S. commercial space industry is still in its infancy and won’t be ready for many years to perform the heavy lift functions that NASA currently does.

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There’s some truth in that. There are only about a dozen fairly small U.S. commercial space companies, such as Orbital Sciences Corp., Rocketplane Kistler, SpaceX, Space Systems/Loral and PlanetSpace, and they have limited experience in launching satellites and other small cargoes into space. Counting on them to quickly ramp up their capabilities and be able to safely lift something as big as a space telescope or heavy cargo for the International Space Station is a stretch. It could be 15 years before that’s realistic.

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That would add a decade to the “shuttle gap,” the dark time between when the remaining shuttles are mothballed sometime next year to when a new program is ready. In the interim, the U.S. will have to rely entirely on Russia for heavy lift space transport. Waiting that long adds geopolitical wrinkles to canceling Constellation, especially if U.S.-Russian relations are strained in coming years.

About $8 billion has already been spent on the Constellation program. That’ll be another argument by program defenders, such as Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) Richard Shelby (R-AL), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Canceling the project now could be applauded as helping to cut the deficit, but it would also be wasting all of what’s already been spent.

Boxer, who may have a difficult reelection campaign, will trumpet Constellation funding in her campaign, calling it a jobs program for California’s large aerospace industry. About 100,000 jobs are directly related to Constellation, especially in Florida, Alabama, California and Utah. An estimated 60,000 other jobs are indirectly linked to the program.

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The national security argument program defenders that will use is especially creative. They’ll say work on the rocket, called the Ares 1-X, which is the pillar of the Constellation program, is central to future U.S. dominance in missile and rocket technology, including future missiles, and possibly even space based defenses, that may be critical to national defense. Look for Congress to order some joint technical work on the rocket between the Defense Department and NASA as one more way to preserve the program.

Constellation supporters have strong odds of rebuffing Obama later this year when annual budget bills are considered. Senate budget planners are already showing their intention to preserve funding. A draft Senate budget resolution -- a blueprint for the next fiscal year -- adds about $1 billion to Obama’s $19 billion budget proposal for NASA, with all of the extra money set aside for Constellation. The budget resolution doesn’t have the force of law, but it is often closely followed as annual spending bills are fashioned later in the year.

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Another advantage Constellation has -- highly influential lawmakers in each party who represent states and districts where NASA contracting, testing and development are widespread, including California, Florida, Texas, Maryland, Alabama and Utah. Delegations like these, acting in concert to save a program under fire, can be politically potent. All in all, work on Constellation is performed in 44 states in varying degree.

A possible veto showdown? It will be talked about as Congress prepares to face down the administration on NASA. But it’s doubtful. Obama will probably show some late hour flexibility, agreeing to let Constellation and all the rocket work move forward for now, while pledging to trim costs elsewhere. He’s not likely to go to the mat against Constellation and risk an embarrassing veto override on a comparatively small annual funding bill that Democrats can portray as important to jobs and security -- and right before the midterm election.

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