Pressure grows on Obama to alter NASA space proposals

Former government officials advise agency to focus less on space exploration and more on efforts to develop wind and solar energy and to combat global warming.

Amid signs it might be receptive to the idea, pressure is growing on the Obama administration to scale back former President George W. Bush's $104 billon Vision for Space exploration plan to replace NASA's Space Shuttle.

"I expect there will be some changes [to the plan] and I think there ought to be some changes," said Louis Friedman, director of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society, a pro-space exploration group.

In a "Roadmap to Space" study issued after the November election, the group, which was co-founded by the late Carl Sagan, recommended that any new human landing on the moon be deferred until the interplanetary transportation system envisioned for the mission -- the Orion moon-ship capsule combined with the Ares I rocket launcher -- has been finished and paid for.

"We are space freaks and we want to go to the moon, but we are not living in a perfect world, and there are budget constraints," said Friedman. He added that the Bush administration's "over-focus on the moon" had not "engaged" the public enough to build adequate political support for the massive project.

In their lobbying for retrenchments for the Vision program, a team of experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently released a two-year review of the plan labeling it "over-ambitious," "not carefully thought through," and "unattainable" given NASA's budget limitations. A group of experts at Rice University's Baker Institute recently recommended that the Orion capsule be downsized to carry three instead of six crew members, and that Ares be scrapped in favor of commercial rockets.

The Baker Institute team, which included former Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey, former Clinton White House science adviser Neal Lane, and former NASA flight director John Muratore, added that NASA should put off retiring the Shuttle until 2015 and should focus less on space exploration and more on efforts to develop wind and solar energy and to combat global warming.

The sentiment was echoed by former House Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.

"I think NASA should return to Planet Earth," Boehlert said in an interview. "It is the most important planet. It's where we live and it's deteriorating before our eyes."

The Obama transition team sent a questionnaire to NASA asking it, among other things, to estimate the savings from scuttling Ares and shrinking Orion.

NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma warned against reading too much into the request, noting that the questionnaire included a range of inquiries about programs. Indeed, the transition team also asked NASA for a cost estimate on the acceleration of the first Ares-Orion flight, according to Space News.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama sent mixed signals on the program. At one point, he proposed to delay the program for five years to free up funding for his $18 billion early education plan.

In subsequent statements, he promised to increase NASA's budget by $2 billion and pledged to finish the Ares/Orion development project, but stopped short of committing himself to a manned moon mission. He also expressed a general dissatisfaction with the status quo at NASA.

The agency "has lost its focus and is no longer associated with inspiration," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I don't think our kids are watching space shuttle launches. It used to be a remarkable thing. I don't think it passes for news anymore."