Exclusive: Obama Backs New Launcher and Bigger NASA Budget

President Barack Obama will ask Congress next year to fund a new heavy-lift launcher to take humans to the moon, asteroids, and the moons of Mars, ScienceInsider has learned. The president chose the new direction for the U.S. human space flight program Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to officials familiar with the discussion. NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 both to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.

The current NASA plan for human exploration is built around the $3.5 billion Constellation program, which would provide a way to get humans to the space station and beyond. But its initial launcher, Ares 1, has faced a string of cost and technical problems, and it was excluded from several options for future space flight put forth earlier this year by an outside panel chaired by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine. Although that panel suggested a $3 billion boost to NASA's $18.7-billion-a-year budget in order to take a firm next step in human space flight, Obama's support for a $1 billion bump next year represents a major coup for the agency given the ballooning deficit and the continuing recession. And NASA just won a $1 billion boost from Congress for 2010 in a bill signed by the president.

According to knowledgeable sources, the White House is convinced that scarce NASA funds would be better spent on a simpler heavy-lift vehicle that could be ready to fly as early as 2018. Meanwhile, European countries, Japan, and Canada would be asked to work on a lunar lander and modules for a moon base, saving the U.S. several billion dollars. And commercial companies would take over the job of getting supplies to the international space station.

“The decision is not going to make anyone gasp,” said one source in the White House, which hopes to ease congressional concerns about the impact of the new plan on existing aerospace jobs. But the decision, which has not yet been formally announced, is sure to spark opposition from Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and other members who fear that any change to the current Constellation rocket program will lead to mass layoffs in their states. Indeed, Shelby inserted language into the final 2010 spending bill for NASA requiring congressional approval before any changes are made to Constellation.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush proposed sending humans back to the moon in 2004. Since that time, however, interest has grown in other destinations. While the U.S. partners focus on lunar exploration, the White House is more intrigued by missions to asteroids and Phobos and Deimos as a precursor to a human landing on the Red Planet in the distant future. That option was given particular prominence by Augustine panel members when they testified this fall before congressional committees. To prepare for human visits, NASA may order additional robotic missions to the martian moons and asteroids in coming years.

The new program would jettison Ares 1. To appease congressional critics like Shelby, the Administration hopes to ensure that research and development work on the new rocket would proceed without significant job losses at NASA centers like Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

But Shelby appears to be preparing for battle. In a 14 December letter to NASA’s inspector general, he said that several Augustine panel members were registered lobbyists who took “direct advantage of their temporary roles on the Commission to further their personal business.” He asked the inspector general to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter.

Augustine could not be reached for comment. The panel did include the president of a company that stands to gain from a recompetition of the new launcher, but none of the committee members were registered lobbyists, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel. But there were numerous staffers from industry backgrounds who helped compile the Augustine report released in October. Shelby’s press secretary, Jonathan Graffeo, did not return calls requesting comment.

The report has kindled heated debate within Congress, the aerospace industry, and the White House regarding what direction the president should take. Obama chose from several options presented to him by NASA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Those options included keeping the budget flat and delaying a new launcher, building a heavy-lift launcher with an additional $1 billion for the agency, ramping up NASA’s annual budget by $3 billion for an aggressive program, or abandoning space flight altogether and reducing NASA’s budget. The president’s decision to go with the second option is a major departure from his 2010 budget plan, which called for a 5% increase in 2010—the boost just approved by Congress—but then remaining flat through 2014.

It's not clear when the new policy will be formally announced. One White House source said that it could come as early as next week, while another hinted that it would wait until Obama’s State of the Union address in late January. Another possibility is that the decision would simply be part of the president's 2011 budget request to Congress on 1 February. Given the White House's preoccupation with health care and climate change, however, NASA officials and their industry backers see the new policy as welcome proof that Obama also cares about space flight.