by Louis D. Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society
The Chair of the Committee, Rep. Bart Gordon, spoke in his opening remarks about the upcoming review of human space flight plans by the Augustine Task Panel. He, and minority leader, Rep. Ralph Hall worried about the future of the human space program -- the budget projection makes no commitments past the current year, pending that Augustine panel review.
There is no question that the NASA program is vigorous, with many missions. Scolese cited a number of the science missions, and of course referred to the very exciting and successful Hubble servicing mission. Scolese also spoke specifically about finishing the shuttle manifest to complete the International Space Station, fly one more science mission, then retire the shuttle as planned and scheduled by the end of 2010.
I was glad to hear that. The shuttle retirement is key to getting to the next stage of human spaceflight and to creating a future for space exploration. That has been the plan for several years now and is widely accepted, although a few U.S. Senators still seem to be lobbying against it based on the arguments for jobs in their states. (In a way, I found it sad to be discussing shuttle retirement at the very time we marvel over the technical achievement of the Hubble servicing mission. The shuttle may be a programmatic and economic problem, but it is an extraordinary technical accomplishment.)
Scolese also cited the Augustine panel, soon to begin reviewing the proposed Constellation program. NASA is in a bit of limbo until the panel completes their work. Until then, NASA is staying the course in the Constellation program and building the Ares I rocket and Orion crew vehicle, despite a number of outside critics suggesting a different approach for the future rockets. Any change now would be a setback to NASA. The biggest open question seems to be the commitment to building the heavy-lift launch vehicle, Ares V, and whether to maintain the current lunar landing plans.
Planetary Society members are well familiar with the Society's outlook on this, as described in our Roadmap to Space.
As often occurs in Congressional hearings, the opening statements were abbreviated, with "full remarks inserted into the record". The committee recessed while members of the House had to go vote. They did not announce how long the recess was for, but it sounded like more than a few minutes.