NASA’s Bolden Battered by Senate Spending Panel

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden today told a Senate spending panel that space science could suffer if the U.S. Congress forces NASA to stick with the Constellation program, which the Administration wants to terminate under President Barack Obama's new space policy. This is the first signal since the policy's rollout in February that the space agency is looking to garner support from the scientific community in its ongoing fight with Congress over the new space-exploration plans.

Bolden said that continuing with the direction set by the Bush Administration, which aimed to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon by 2020, would force NASA "to make cuts to the International Space Station" and "our science budget." Bolden appeared before the Senate appropriations subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science and other agencies to defend a 2011 budget request that would boost NASA science to $5 billion, an 11% increase over current levels.

The hearing was the first congressional discussion of space policy since Obama's speech last week at the Kennedy Space Center in which he offered to retain a few elements of Constellation. For weeks, legislators have criticized the Administration for failing to provide details of its new policy, and the tenor of comments by lawmakers at today's hearings suggests that the president's speech hasn't made much of a difference.

The president's revision of the new plan for NASA "continues the abdication" of American leadership in space to other nations, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) told Bolden. Shelby, whose state would be a big loser if the Constellation program were ended, added that the new policy amounted to setting up a "welfare program" for the private sector at the cost of human exploration. The chair of the subcommittee, Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), didn't mince words, either. "I have 13 pages of questions," she told Bolden. "Where are we going, when will we get there, and what will it take?"