Spaceflight fascinates and inspires many Americans, but in a time of constrained federal budgets, it must compete with a multitude of other national priorities. As the 114th Congress conducts oversight and considers authorization and appropriations legislation for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an overarching question will be how NASA should move forward within budget constraints.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-267) set a new direction for NASA's human spaceflight programs. For access to low Earth orbit, including the International Space Station (ISS), it confirmed NASA's plans to develop a commercial space transportation capability for both cargo and astronauts. The first commercial cargo flight for ISS resupply was conducted in May 2012. Pending the planned availability of commercial crew transportation in 2017, NASA is paying Russia to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft. Issues for Congress include the cost, schedule, and safety of future commercial crew services, as well as the need for alternatives if commercial providers do not succeed.
For human exploration beyond Earth orbit, the 2010 NASA authorization act mandated development of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to launch Orion into space. A test flight of Orion, on an existing rocket and without a crew, took place in December 2014. The first test flight of Orion on the SLS, again without a crew, is planned for FY2018. The first test flight with a crew is planned for FY2021-FY2022. Issues include NASA's ability to meet that schedule, the feasibility of accelerating the schedule, the payload mass capability of the SLS in the near and long term, and how Orion and the SLS should be used when operational. NASA plans to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s, but some in Congress would prefer to focus on returning humans to the Moon. Orion and the SLS could also be used as a backup option for access to the ISS, but that option raises additional questions about cost and schedule.
U.S. use of the ISS is currently authorized through FY2020. NASA has announced that it plans to extend ISS operations through at least 2024. In addition to crew access concerns and issues related to service life extension, Congress is likely to examine the utilization of the ISS for research, both through traditional NASA mechanisms and via the independently managed ISS national laboratory process.
Many in Congress are concerned that the needs of the human spaceflight program may reduce the resources available for NASA's other activities, including science, aeronautics research, and education. Funding for Earth science satellites is particularly contentious, because of their use for climate change research. Proposed cuts in funding for planetary science have encountered opposition in both Congress and the scientific community. The explosion of a small asteroid over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 may have increased congressional interest in the science and potential threat of near-Earth asteroids and comets. The Administration's proposals to reorganize federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs would affect numerous NASA education activities, especially those outside the Office of Education.
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