WASHINGTON A strategy unveiled by NASA officials would redirect the space agency's budget resources to develop new technical capabilities designed to move beyond Earth orbit while leveraging the engineering expertise of the agency's network of space centers.
Under pressure to flesh out a budget proposal met with widespread criticism in February, agency officials attempted on Thursday (April 8) to regain the political high ground in advance of President Barack Obama's visit to the Kennedy Space Center next week. NASA's plan would commit billions of dollars to R&D and technology demonstrations designed to develop new space capabiliites ranging from propulsion to on-orbit construction needed to explore the solar system.
"We are rebalancing [NASA's] technology portfolio," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said during a conference call with reporters. "You are going to see shifts in where the workforce is applied" to research and technology demonstrations.
Deputy Administrator Lori Garver added that the agency wants to stress "pre-cursor missions," both manned and unmanned, to gather expertise needed to launch missions beyond Earth orbit. Alluding to uncertainty about future of U.S. manned spaceflight after the space shuttle program ends as early as this year, Garver said, "The goal is not to be in this situation every four years" by developing a budget and research blueprint for the future.
The Obama administration's plan to cancel the Constellation moon-rocket program has been met with widespread criticism from members of Congress, especially those with contractor facilities and jobs in their districts. The White House faces an uphill battle in Congress to approve its plan to end Constellation, redirect budget resources to R&D programs and rely on the Russia to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station in the interim.
Bolden laid out an ambitious plan to reorganize NASA's far-flung centers, which include the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, to focus on developing new technologies needed to reach Mars and other points in the solar system.
For example, Garver said Houston would assume responsibility under the new space strategy for demonstrating "transformational technologies" that would provide multiple paths to low-Earth orbit.
Also planned are upgrades at the Kennedy Space Center designed to allow faster processing and launches of commercial rockets. Meanwhile, the Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, Ala.) would again focus on developing a new U.S. "heavy lift" capability to replace Constellation that would allow the U.S. to again leave Earth orbit.
Other NASA centers like the Langley Research Center in Virginia would shift from basic research to "capability-oriented R&D," Bolden said.
Among the new capabilities needed are technologies for landing humans on Mars, said NASA chief technologist. "We don't know how to land a large payload on Mars," said Bobby Braun.
Bolden acknowledged that the proposed shift of NASA's budget priorities was subject to congressional approval. For example, lawmakers must still approve NASA's plan to cancel Constellation, which still has considerable support in states where contractors are developing components.
Bolden has stressed that components from the Constellation program, perhaps including its Orion crew cabin, could be reused in future manned exploration efforts.