Congress, NASA, White House

Bipartisan House letter calls for “vision and timeline” for space exploration

A letter to President Obama signed by 30 members of the House of Representatives calls on the White House to provide more details, and support, for human space exploration. The letter, dated March 21 and released Monday, expresses concern about “shifting priorities for NASA and the resulting mixed signals this sends relative to the United States’ dedication and commitment to its leadership role in human deep spaceflight exploration,” adding that leadership is threatened by “the expansion of human spaceflight programs in countries such as China and Russia over the past decade.”

“We urge you to chart and clearly state a vision and timeline for the nation in deep space exploration,” the letter requests of the President. The letter stops short, though, of calling for a specific direction, such as a human return to the Moon or acceleration of NASA’s existing long-term plans to send humans to Mars by the mid-2030s. Instead, the letter focuses on the technological and educational benefits of investment in space exploration. “We look forward to working with the Administration to strengthen human spaceflight exploration in our budget commitment,” the letter concludes. “Working together, we can chart a course for space exploration worthy of our great nation.”

The letter is signed by 30 members of the House, 14 Republicans and 16 Democrats, with Reps. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, and Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of that subcommittee, as the lead signers. Other signatories to the letter include Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full House Science Committee. Notably absent, though, are the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairman emeritus Ralph Hall (R-TX), and vice-chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). The chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee that funds NASA, Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Chaka Fattah (D-PA), are also absent from the letter.

Interestingly, the press release jointly issued by Palazzo and Edwards emphasizes support for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs at NASA, although neither are mentioned by name in the body of the letter. (A reader notes that they are mentioned in the subject of the letter: “Re: NASA Space Launch System and Orion”.) The letter, they state, is “in support of NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion as part of prioritizing human space exploration within NASA’s budgets,” although there’s only a reference in the letter’s opening sentence to support for “a safe, focused and expeditious return of American astronauts to deep space exploration on an American rocket launched from American soil.” Palazzo, in his statement in the joint press release, says he will do “everything in my power to restore that focus to NASA’s budgets as we revisit these matters in the NASA Authorization Act later this year.”

16 comments to Bipartisan House letter calls for “vision and timeline” for space exploration

  • amightywind

    Good to see bipartisanship in congress on space. There are a few patriots left. How can a nation that produced Apollo and the Space Shuttle just abandon space? It is time to full fill the post shuttle vision of George Bush. Build Ares!

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      Good to see bipartisanship in congress on space. There are a few patriots left.

      Wow, you do know that more Democrats signed the letter than Republicans, right? Since you didn’t distinguish, you must be finally admitting that Democrats are patriots too, huh?

      Regardless, they still can’t agree on WHERE the dynamic duo of the SLS and MPCV should go, so I wouldn’t be counting my launches just yet…

      • amightywind

        I’m just glad there are people out there who see our lame space program for what it is.

        • Coastal Ron

          amightywind said:

          I’m just glad there are people out there who see our lame space program for what it is.

          Space is a big place, so not having a consensus about where to go should not surprise you.

          Space is also a very expensive place to operate in, so expecting our politicians to be spending lavishly on space should not surprise you either, especially when there isn’t some sort of National Imperative creating a sense of urgency like the Cold War did (and no, Putin’s escapades do not rise to the level of the Cold War).

          So it should definitely not be a surprise when our politicians cannot figure what to do with the most expensive rocket the U.S. has built in generations. And just because the SLS is a smaller version of the Ares V doesn’t mean that going to the Moon is any less expensive or quicker than what the Constellation program was going to do (i.e. $100B and 20 years down the road).

          Any exploration plan that does not focus on initial costs and sustainable costs is doomed to fail. And the SLS and MPCV fail both of those tests.

  • More mindless babble. They’ve been provided with one document after another, as amply proven by many independent reports over the years. They do nothing other than fight over scraps of pork for their districts.

    If they want to see who’s responsible for a supposed lack of direction, they need only find the closest mirror.

  • Hiram

    Unless the NASA budget is dramatically increased, its “vision” will be only mildly challenging and the “timeline” for it will be long. The lack of vision and timeline that Congress now sees is really just a reflection of the fact that the Administration doesn’t see any likelihood that Congress will increase the agency budget to one “worthy of a great nation”. That’s exactly what happened with Bush and led to the demise of Constellation. Of course, the lesson is with Apollo, where Congress bloated the NASA budget to the point that the agency actually had something to dream with. But in that case, NASA didn’t come up with the vision. The vision was beating the USSR, and that vision came firmly from the White House.

    What’s sad about this letter is that Congress knows that it doesn’t have any real vision of its own. “Do SOMETHING!” they’re telling NASA. The fact that the letter doesn’t focus on a specific destination or accomplishment makes this lack of real vision especially clear. They use the words “deep space exploration” without really defining what those words mean or what their expectations are for it. One has to assume that simply shooting humans beyond LEO doesn’t count because although it is “deep space”, it somehow doesn’t measure up to their “exploration” smell test.

    But yes, what this is about is demanding that NASA come up with some vision for spending loads of money in their districts. That’s the main expectation.

  • John Malkin

    I agree useless and self-serving.

    I think the “Vision” needs to come from the committees on Science, Space and Technology. One of the biggest problems with past “Visions” is they are too grand. What is the effectiveness of grand Presidential “Visions” on the Agriculture, Education, Energy and so on?

    The first question is “Does the government engage in Human Spaceflight?”.

    If Yes Than “What is the overall goal and expectation of the results of the goal?”. A goal is more than a destination, it’s a journey and they must be unified and fully funded. It must include science goals for human spaceflight otherwise there is no point in sending humans. To avoid the human v. robot, the emphasis is to obtain human experience in space so in the best case it would be a combination of both.

    The committees needs to get their act together or in less than 50 years, NASA will be a footnote in history (No pork or scraps of meat) as the private sector moves beyond them. The tipping point is approaching.

    • Hiram

      If you read their letter, you are led to believe that their goal and expectation is firmly based on “inspiration”, which is one of the most ill-defined and overused rationales that anyone has ever come up with. It will be amusing to see how the success of this effort is assessed. “OK, everyone who felt ‘inspired’, please smile and raise your hand!” Considering that advocacy for human spaceflight is becoming like a religion, with meaning that transcends any solid rationale, it makes sense to look to for inspiration from it.

      The implicit goal of human spaceflight is colonization and settlement. That’s a solid argument for human spaceflight, but one that Congress won’t touch with a ten foot pole, and no administration has shown any passion for.

  • August 2012 … In response to a demand from Congress that the White House articulate a vision for the space program, NASA issued a report titled
    NASA Exploration Destinations, Goals, and International Collaboration.

    Congress did nothing.

    The White House did exactly what this letter asks. Time for Congress to stop blaming everyone else but themselves for their failure to act.

    • Neil Shipley

      Yes agreed. The WH initiated a program based on technology development being exactly what was needed for the next steps out beyond leo since NASA have acknowledged that that cupboard is bare. Congress shut it down and voted for the pork SLS and to continue funding MPCV. What a joke!

    • adastramike

      I read through this short report and was not impressed. It basically regurgitated the 2010 space policy without actually doing what was requested: laying out specific goals, destinations and vision, and that means actual missions, whether a series of technology demonstrations or science-driven human spaceflght missions. A high schooler could have done better.

      Their schedule was pretty much only near term, instead of planning missions in stepping stone fashion, that test key technologies and systems needed for human exploration of Mars. What about a plan for a habitation module, artificial gravity systems for the months long journey to Mars, life support systems in deep space, advanced propulsion systems to shorten the trip time, advanced entry systems to enter the Martian atmosphere at lowest mass possible, other entry methods to land more than just 2 tons, surface habitation systems, roving vehicles, and other key elements? Where’s the plant phase development and testing of each system in an orderly manner so that we actually do achieve a crewed Mars landing inthe 2030s?

      And don’t point to this asteroid redirect mission. It’s a stunt, a single mission at that, with little applicability to human Mars exploration, in my view. I haven’t heard of a good explanation as to how this mission supports the goal to send humans to Mars, only statements that it does. That is, beyond being different target than the Moon, how is this a stepping stone? Yes, the SLS and Orion will be tested, but that’s not enough for a serious humans to Mars plan. What utility is SEP to landing on or even orbiting humans around Mars? SEP might be good for cargo missions, but how will an SEP system, designed to move a small asteroid, be directly applicable to sending humans to Mars? SEP trajectories imply slow spirals, which increases travel time, the opposite of what’s needed. We need to prove out systems for both long duration space travel and surface stays, not one-off stunts. And I don’t see a plan to do that, from either current NASA leadership or the WH. So no, they haven’t addressed the long term with a mission-driven strategy, even at the key technology level. That lack of a plan is not just pathetic, it is deliberate, in my view, on the part of our so called leaders. It’s deliberate either because the leadership is incompetent on space exploration matters, and left the long term plan blank because they don’t know what to do next, or they don’t care.

  • Dick Eagleson

    The last 40 years of history serve to demonstrate very plainly that the U.S. government is not going to be the engine of humanity’s advance into space. The only rational justification for going into space is so that significant populations can follow the trailblazers and establish themselves off-planet. But no significant political figure in either major political party – with the sale exception of Newt Gingrich – has ever done anything but heap scorn on this aspiration. To nearly all of our political class, space is irrelevant, silly, the childish obsession of people who wear Starfleet uniforms and Spock ears. To the remaining few, it is relevant only as a source of pork spending in their districts/states. NASA has spent most of the last four decades doing little but wasting and dithering. Under direction of the current and foreseeable U.S. political class, it will continue mostly wasting and dithering. The only sustainable space efforts will come from visionary entrepreneurs in the private sector. The most significant such current figure is obviously Elon Musk. Five years from now, NASA and the U.S. Congress will still be porkmeistering in pointless circles. Musk and SpaceX will be the major players setting the agenda for the only “space program” that will really still matter.

    • Hiram

      The corollary to this is that, in the same way that commercial space decides on marketable space hardware that NASA can choose to buy (as opposed to building to detailed NASA spec), commercial space will also end up setting a vision and timeline for space that the U.S. government can chose to buy. So what we’re looking at is not just commercial hardware, but commercial vision and timeline. Although commercialization of space vision and timeline doesn’t particularly assert geopolitical superiority, it works for me. Fortunately, the commercial leaders are not space advocates who are wearing Starfleet uniforms and Spock ears, and they’re also not the ones who are kissing the feet of constituents in their district, and changing the rules every government fiscal year.

      This is the real power of space commercialism. It’s not just about cheaper hardware but, in the absence of any other leadership, is about producing vision that hardware is intended to serve.

      • Dick Eagleson

        Exactly, Hiram. And very well put. Giant sausages like SLS, concocted from dubious ingredients by incompetent congressional meatpackers, have no future. Nor does any NASA human spaceflight plan that requires more than a single presidential administration to accomplish. History amply demonstrates that long-term goal-setting and achievement are mainly the province of visionary and persistent individuals working in the private sector.

  • vulture4

    It’s clear they want money moved to SLS/Orion from somewhere else in NASA’s budget. But where?

  • Moose

    Congress calls for vision and timeline for space exploration so that it can ignore and chronically under-fund it like the last one.

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