NASA's Black Hole: After Last Shuttle Launch, Will U.S. Space Dominance End?


Obama Scraps Moon Plans

Griffin's chief complaint is that the Obama administration has scrapped the plans sketched out during the Bush years for the development of new spacecraft to take humans back to the moon. And he and others find excruciating the idea that the U.S. could be completely dependent for the next several years on Russian Soyuz rockets to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

The U.S. has signed a series of agreements with the Russians. The most recent, announced last month, included a sizeable price hike. And because the U.S. had earlier pledged to carry space station partners from Japan, Canada, and Europe, American taxpayers will pay the Russians for those seats as well.

"They're exercising their leverage," Griffin told ABC News. "We knew the minute the shuttle stopped flying the price on the Russian craft was going to go up. We told them capitalism was a better path. Well they have embraced that. The Russians are now in the catbird seat and they're going to charge for it."

Bolden disagreed, calling the Russians "very reliable partners." At the same time, he added, "I don't want anyone to get comfortable with that partnership and rely on them."

The NASA administrator expressed confidence in the work of SpaceX, the California company started by internet billionaire Elon Musk, one of two private firms working on plans to carry supplies, and eventually astronauts, back and forth to the space station. The company has had a successful test flight, during which it put a capsule into orbit and then returned it safely to earth.

The company still has two more tests to complete before NASA allows it to carry cargo to the station as part of a multi-billion dollar contract. But Bolden hinted he may be preparing to permit SpaceX to speed up its work by conducting the two tests (one includes successfully docking with the station) during a single flight.

"NASA will no longer procure vehicles and operate them for low earth orbit activities," Bolden said. "We are going to completely rely on [commercial companies] for that work."

In Congress, however, there continues to be skepticism about that approach.

"Until commercial companies demonstrate the ability to carry cargo to space – as taxpayers have already paid them to do -- why would we trust them to carry human beings there?" Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, told ABC News in an email.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said he believes private commercial space companies are making progress.

"We have begun to see test flights of new vehicles and new spacecraft," he said. "But, spaceflight is a risky business and these companies still have a long way to go before they are ready to put U.S. astronauts on board."

Scott Pace, a former NASA official who now oversees the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the push towards relying more on commercial companies makes sense. But he is concerned that Bolden is making NASA over-reliant on commercial businesses.

"I think SpaceX is a great company," Pace said. "My problem is, I have a criticism of a government policy that rides completely on the success of that company. The history of space entrepreneurial firms is that the vast, vast majority fail. It doesn't make a lot of logical sense to me."

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Bolden said that while he has confidence in the agency's new commercial partners, he is approaching the partnership with a certain degree of caution. NASA will be an active partner as plans develop to put astronauts back into space, he said, not a bystander.

"I am very optimistic," he said. "Space exploration has a bright future. We're just at the beginning."

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