Published January 27, 2010
Houston, we have a problem.
President Obama's renewed focus on creating jobs, which he plans to lay out in his State of the Union address Wednesday night, apparently doesn't include reaching for the moon.
Obama is reportedly going to flatline NASA's budget when he releases his annual spending plan on Monday, effectively grounding the agency's Constellation program, which oversees human spaceflight.
The program needs about $3 billion in additional funding annually for the next five years to keep the International Space Station supplied and to create a new generation of spacecraft, according to a commission the president appointed last year.
Instead NASA will outsource space flight to other governments -- such as the Russians -- and private companies.
"It's going to be a huge negative impact on the economy, particularly aerospace," said Bret Silcox, associate director with the National Space Society, a leading space advocacy group.
The lack of funding is likely to hurt most in Florida, where three space shuttles would be retired, resulting in the loss of anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000 jobs, Silcox told FoxNews.com.
But Marty Hauser, vice president of Washington operations for the Space Foundation, an advocacy group, said that while the proposal would hurt in the short term, it does have the potential to create jobs in the long term if the objective is to privatize space flight.
"Change is hard in any environment," he said. "If change is coming, it will be difficult in many facets. We in the space business believe we have the potential to create jobs. That said, there's no magic bullet."
NASA declined to comment on the proposal before the budget has been released. But Republican lawmakers wasted no time in blasting the president.
"I am concerned that this administration has chosen not to prioritize NASA's human spaceflight program, particularly when billions have been squandered on bailouts and a failed stimulus package," said Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, the ranking member on the House Science and Technology Committee.
"As a result, we run the risk of losing a uniquely skilled and educated workforce," he said.
Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, whose congressional district includes Houston's Johnson Space Center, said Obama has "sadly" been focused on the wrong priorities for America, citing the $787 billion stimulus bill that he said "wasted billion of tax dollars" by sending funds to his supporters and not creating jobs.
Obama "could not be more wrong to consider canceling it," he said in a written statement. "Not insignificantly during this time of economic uncertainty, human space flight accounts for thousands of high paying American jobs and are essential to maintaining our leadership."
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, a member of the Science and Technology Committee whose district includes many NASA employees, said the proposal to cancel the Constellation program has broader implications than the planned return to the moon.
"Eliminating this vision for America's manned space program will put us even further behind in our plans to replace the Space Shuttle at a time when other nations are already challenging our preeminence in space," he said.
"Killing the Constellation program now would waste billions of dollars we have already invested and leave American astronauts dependent on the Russian space program for transportation to and from the International Space Station," he said.
NASA employs more than 18,000 civil service workers, most of whom are located at the agency's headquarters in Washington and 10 major field centers across the country. NASA also employs 40,000 contractors and grantees who work at or near the NASA centers.
The space agency's budget is more than $18.7 billion this year and is expected to rise again in 2011, but by much less than the $1 billion increase NASA and its contractors have been privately anticipating since mid-December. A White House-appointed panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, urged these changes to the administration last month.
The panel also said a worthwhile manned space exploration program would require Obama to budget about $55 billion for human spaceflight over the next five years, some $11 billion more than he included in the 2011-2015 forecast he sent Congress last spring.
But according to the Orlando Sentinel, White House insiders and agency officials say NASA will eventually look at developing a new "heavy-lift" rocket that one day will take humans and robots to explore beyond low Earth orbit years in the future -- and possibly even decades or more.
In the meantime, the White House will direct NASA to concentrate on earth science projects -- principally, researching and monitoring climate change -- and on a new technology research and development program that will one day make human exploration of asteroids and the solar system possible.
But that doesn't please Republican lawmakers.
"I would strongly oppose any further cuts to human space flight funding that would make the United States dependent on foreign nations for manned space access," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
"NASA's focus must remain on continuing America's leadership in the use of and research in space," she said. "This is essential to secure our economic well-being and security, our technological competitiveness, and our international leadership."
Hall said the U.S. civil space program, for less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget, "has a proven track record of driving innovation, generating lasting jobs and propelling our nation forward. By failing to aggressively invest in NASA, we're robbing future generations of the technologies they'll need to compete."
Hall said the U.S. is in danger of losing its standing in the international community and its competitive edge globally.
"Many of the same technologies developed and used by NASA are critical to our national defense, and we should keep in mind that the next war may well be defended from space," he said.
Space industry advocates expressed dismay over the prospect of the budget freeze for NASA and the impact it could have on the economy.
"I think NASA's value as an economic engine for the country is long understood in theory, long underplayed in Congress," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a space exploration advocacy group.
Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy recognized that NASA's space exploration played a "vital role" not just in the economy but in national security," Friedman said.
"If they don't fund a high achieving, inspiring human space flight program, they will probably fund one not worth the cost," he said.
J.P. Stevens, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade organization for commercial space industry, told FoxNews.com that the big concern in his industry is that a lack of sufficient funding for NASA will cause a brain drain, driving the best and the brightest away -- a loss he said could affect national security.
"The big concern is how do you attract youth in an industry where you're constantly starting and stopping" programs, he said. "You cut back your programs, you cut back students going into high level sciences and matching disciplines."
Ray Williamson, executive director of Secure World Foundation, said freezing NASA's budget could help the president politically because jobs in the Constellation program are high tech and high paying.
"If he increased the budget, he could be charged with you're only interested in the section of the population that already has a lot of education and not so much the common everyday people,' he said. "From that standpoint, he could face a lot more criticism."