Panel Demands NASA Documents to Support Budget

Annoyed that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been slow to explain how it plans to overhaul the human space-flight program, a Congressional committee is demanding that the agency provide a host of records related to its budget request for 2011.

The space agency missed a Wednesday deadline to update its budget request with details of its new plan. In a letter sent Thursday to the NASA administrator, Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., leaders of the House Committee on Science and Technology wrote, “Congress must now insist upon the production of all materials NASA relied upon in formulating its proposal.”

The committee said NASA should provide these documents by next Friday.

The Obama administration has proposed replacing NASA’s current return-to-the-moon plans with research on new space technologies and an initiative to enlist commercial companies for launching people into orbit.

In particular, the House committee is looking for information about an expensive lifeboat spacecraft for the International Space Station that President Obama announced in April. The lifeboat is a stripped-down version of the Orion capsule that NASA has been developing to take astronauts to the International Space Station and later the Moon.

In February, as part of its budget request for the 2011 fiscal year, the administration announced it wanted to cancel Orion along with the rest of the moon program known as Constellation. Two months later, Mr. Obama shifted course somewhat and said that the Orion would continue, but in a truncated form to evacuate people from the space station in an emergency.

For people working on the Orion program, their employment in limbo continues. With diminishing resources, they are making slower progress on the goals of the current program. Yet they have also received little direction of how to fit their work into the president’s objectives for the next budget year, which begins Oct. 1.

“We have no budget and we have no requirements,” said Julie Kramer White, NASA’s chief engineer for Orion. “What am I supposed to do? My choice is to best continue the best I can with what I have.”

She said she was trying to preserve as flexibility as she could to handle whatever outcome, from cancellation to Congress deciding to restore the full version of Orion.

General Bolden testified to Congressional committees last month that a NASA study team would provide recommendations to him by early June and a revised budget request would be sent to Congress “in the near future.”

The addition of an Orion lifeboat was intended to generate support for the president’s plan, but many engineers inside and outside of NASA questioned the wisdom of the idea.

“I have not found anyone in the industry that thinks this makes any economic or technical sense,” said Douglas O. Stanley, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology who led the NASA study that came up with the Constellation approach in 2005.


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