One of the ongoing debates about the White House’s new plan for NASA is whether the agency’s human spaceflight plans be focused on going to specific destinations (Moon, Mars, etc.), often by a certain deadline, or instead developing the capabilities and infrastructure needed for future exploration without a specific destination or schedule in mind. The new plan right now is squarely in the latter category: there’s funding for commercial crew development, heavy-lift launch vehicle technology development, and other technology R&D, all without (for now) the earlier destinations and deadlines of the Vision for Space Exploration—much to the consternation of some.
It appears that Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA, is one of those in favor of a more destination-drive approach to human spaceflight. In a letter to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) excerpted in Space News, Mikulski said any new program must have a specific destination or destinations in mind:
“Since NASA’s creation, it has been a mission driven agency, and I believe having a clear direction and destination has contributed to NASA’s many successes,” she wrote. “NASA must continue to have a mission driven focus. To the maximum extent practicable, we should engage our international partners in formulating common destinations for human and robotic missions.”
Mikulski also said her other priorities include astronaut safety and the need for human spaceflight to be “appropriately balanced” with science, aeronautics, and other technology development. Also on her radar: workforce concerns, particularly if the new NASA approach is to “scrap everything and start over”. She’s not in an hurry to take up this issue, though: an aide to Mikulski told Space News that her subcommittee’s first hearing on the NASA budget would not be until late March.