As shuttle program winds down, uncertainty looms for NASA

As the space shuttle program nears its final mission, Congress is criticizing NASA for moving too slowly to take the next step. But in many ways, it's still not entirely clear what that next step is.

"I'm worried that NASA's inaction and indecision in making this transition could hurt America's space leadership-something that would cost us billions of dollars and years to repair," Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in an opening statement for a subcommittee hearing Wednesday. He said he is concerned that the agency is not effectively implementing legislation passed last year that outlined a new focus for NASA, including more reliance on commercial space companies.

Senate Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, also questioned the speed of NASA's transition. "I think we are all concerned about how slow everything seems to be moving," she told the hearing of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space, called to examine how space exploration aligns with national goals.

Congress has yet to fully decide what that next step is. NASA often finds itself squeezed between competing interests in Washington. In 2009, President Obama halted a plan to send astronauts back to the moon, but this year Congress-with an eye to home-state jobs-appropriated $3.8 billion to continue the program.

Obama has called for more spending on climate science, commercial rockets, the International Space Station, and a new generation of space-exploration technology.

The space shuttle Endeavour took off Monday; the last shuttle mission is scheduled for July. NASA could be vulnerable, as the end of the space shuttle program coincides with efforts to slash government spending.

Lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing pointed fingers at congressional and White House proposals to cut NASA's budget. Obama's latest budget proposal froze NASA's budget at 2010 levels while House Republicans called for up to $379 million in cuts.

Reducing space budgets may be an attractive option, but in the long term it could hurt the U.S. economy, said Frank Slazer, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association.

"While cutting the federal deficit is essential to assuring our economic future, cutting back on exploration investments is a penny-wise but pound-foolish approach that will have infinitesimal impact on the budget deficit," he said. "Cutting exploration further threatens our economic growth potential and risks our continued national technical leadership overall, even as emerging world powers increase their investments in this important arena."

Space exploration has real impact back on earth, said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who represents Florida, which hosts the Kennedy Space Center and other NASA facilities and space industries.

"America's space program is not something we simply do for fun," he said. "Many industries exist because of the space program." Rubio called for a better-defined goal for NASA.

And losing the competitive edge in space could undermine American economic power and national security, said Elliot Pulham, CEO of the Space Foundation.

"The mastery of space has always carried with it a not-so-subtle message to friend and foe: 'This is what we are capable of. You want to work with us. You want to be our friend. You want to follow our lead. You do not want to challenge us,'" he said.

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