CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA's human spaceflight program is destined to limp forward or even fizzle out unless political leaders can finally agree on a long-term plan for where and how humans should explore space, two policy experts said Thursday.
"What you're seeing in the current debate over priorities really is the residual of 40 years of failure to reach consensus on what the U.S. should be doing on space, and particularly in human spaceflight," said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University.
"We're currently in a very, very fragile situation, particularly as it regards human spaceflight," added Scott Pace, a professor and director of the same university's Space Policy Institute. "It is not at all inevitable that human spaceflight will continue as we look in the years ahead."
In a teleconference with reporters about the direction of U.S. space policy, both described NASA as suffering from "drift" in direction, according to Local 6 News partner Florida Today.
House and Senate committees have passed competing versions of NASA authorization bills, with proposed funding for next year ranging from about $16.8 billion to $18.1 billion.
The lower House total factors in automatic budget cuts called sequestration, while the higher Senate total assumes those cuts won't happen.
The House would prevent NASA from pursuing a mission to capture an asteroid for astronauts to visit in 2021, while the Senate only directs the agency to take steps toward an eventual Mars mission.
The key human spaceflight differences center on where exploration missions should go, and whether NASA should help develop multiple commercial systems for rides to the International Space Station or choose one.
"On the human spaceflight side, the sense of drift, or the sense of lack of consensus, still is fairly serious," Pace said.
Pace advocates for international partnerships on missions to or near the moon, rather than the proposed "one-off" missions to an asteroid or Mars that offer few opportunities for collaboration anytime soon.
Such a "geopolitical" approach, he said, would align emerging nations' interests with our own and provide a strategic rationale, not just that of a space enthusiast.
Logsdon said the current stated goal of going to Mars "takes us in a particular direction that's been there for half a century or more without really much debate of whether it's the right direction."
He criticized President Barack Obama for failing to invite international leaders to work together to define a new future for the space program.
The Obama administration tried to offer a new direction for NASA in 2010, but bungled its rollout and failed to overcome congressional backlash, resulting in unsatisfactory compromises, they said.
"What's missing is a sense of strategy, of strategic purpose for this organization," said Logsdon. "What should it be doing?"
If no coherent long-term plan is formed and exploration by default centers on the International Space Station, Pace said that when the station is deorbited "there will be an end to U.S. human spaceflight, and an end to a near-term government market for the commercial sectors."
But given strong industrial and regional interests in the programs, Logsdon said he anticipates "some form of limping through human spaceflight effort that is more similar than different than what we've done for the past four decades."
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