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Lawmakers Say New NASA Plan Lacks Direction

As the head of NASA visits Capitol Hill this week, some lawmakers are telling him that President Obama's new plan for NASA sounds like a road to nowhere.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida who once flew on the space shuttle, suggested that NASA heed some wise words from a famous American philosopher, Yogi Berra: "You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."

After NASA retires its aging fleet of space shuttles later this year, the agency was planning to shift its attention to its Constellation program — an effort to build new rockets and capsules to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

But the Obama administration's proposed new budget would kill the Constellation program. And some legislators are worried that NASA would be left with no new destination for future astronauts and no specific timelines for achieving major new goals in human spaceflight.

Nelson said he fears that means this country "is going to be on the sidelines while other countries continue to make incremental progress toward destinations like the moon."

This concern was echoed by Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. He noted that NASA's greatest achievements came back when it was challenged by President Kennedy to land a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.

"President Kennedy didn't say, 'We're going to spend several billion dollars, and do some really neat R&D,'" Vitter noted, referring to the plan for NASA to do increased research and development on technologies for going farther out into the solar system.

In response to these concerns, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that there is an ultimate destination underlying the new plans for NASA — and that's Mars.

Former astronaut and NASA administrator Charles Bolden discusses the president's proposed budget for the space agency at a news conference on Feb. 6.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Former astronaut and NASA administrator Charles Bolden discusses the president's proposed budget for the space agency at a news conference on Feb. 6.

Trouble is, Bolden said, there's lots of new technology needed before anyone could realistically contemplate a Mars mission.

Even with an infinite pot of money, Bolden said, "I could not get a human to Mars within the next 10 years, because there are just some things that we don't know."

Bolden testified that the new proposed budget would keep astronauts going into space, by providing funds to extend the life of the international space station. It would also support efforts by private firms to develop space taxis to take astronauts up. And he said astronauts may well end up visiting the moon, or possibly an asteroid, before NASA aims for Mars.

NASA's moon-focused Constellation program had been under-funded for years, Bolden pointed out, and consequently its vision of returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2020 just wasn't feasible.

"Somebody once told me a vision without resources is a hallucination," said Bolden. "If you look at where we were prior to the 2011 budget, we were living a hallucination."

But Vitter didn't find that convincing. "If vision without resources is a hallucination," he said, "resources without vision is a waste of time and money. And that's what I think this budget represents."

Vitter vowed to fight the current administration's proposed budget with "every ounce of energy" he has and said he thought he would have bipartisan support in that effort.

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