CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Sometime in 2010, the world's leading space agency will say goodbye to human spaceflight for more than four years. And that has U.S. policymakers worried.
The flight gap will occur because NASA is winding down its space shuttle program near the end of 2010 to move into the next phase of space exploration — the moon and Mars. NASA's next-generation spacecraft, the Orion capsule, won't be ready for piloted flight until March 2015.
During those gap years, the United States must rely on private contractors and other nations if it wants to send astronauts and cargo to the international space station.
"Who knows what the geopolitics is going to be like in 2015?" asks U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who chairs the Space, Aeronautics and Related Sciences subcommittee. "Is Russia still going to be allied with us? Would they possibly be allied with China at that point?"
The space agency has been in this position before. There was a six-year gap between the last Apollo flight in 1975 and the first shuttle flight in 1981.
In the meantime, NASA expects to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Russia and/or U.S. companies for lifts to the space station. NASA may also turn to the European Space Agency, which is developing its own cargo spaceship known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle. The ATV's first spaceflight is due for launch this year.
"It is not a very desirable situation," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "We will have an orbiting destination that we have spent multiple billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money to develop. To not be able to get there except for the good will of others is a little ironic."
A new space race?
NASA fears the United States will risk losing its title as the leading spacefaring nation as Russia, Europe, Japan, China and India improve their ability to send humans and cargo into space during the gap years. Currently, the only three nations with vehicles able to fly people to space are China, Russia and the United States.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin recently told lawmakers that China's ambitious space program could feasibly beat the United States in the race back to the moon, although he and outside experts say there's no indication yet that China is on that path.
The gap also could contribute to a loss of interest in space exploration by the U.S. public and Congress, and that could diminish the resources allotted to the space agency, said W. Henry Lambright, a political science professor at Syracuse University.
"It's really important for NASA to have activity, to keep going, to constantly have a face in Washington based on its successes," Lambright said.
Money changes everything
Griffin recently called the gap "unseemly," but he has few options with the budgets NASA has been given by the White House and Congress since President Bush first announced plans to return to the moon three years ago. NASA has put the cost of returning to the moon at $104 billion, although the General Accounting Office puts it at $122 billion through 2018.
"Space is not only not a high priority, it's hard to keep it on the radar screen for the White House right now," Lambright said.
NASA had hoped to have the first piloted Orion flight as early as 2012. That would be a low-orbit test flight. But that goal was pushed back to 2014 when NASA had to raid the Orion development fund to fill in a $3 billion shortfall for finishing space station construction and ending the shuttle program. Repairs to NASA buildings damaged by Hurricane Katrina also siphoned off money.
Space agency officials said the 2007 budget would remove more than $500 million from what NASA had budgeted for developing the new spacecraft, pushing the first manned flight of Orion into March 2015. A moon landing is scheduled for no later than 2020.
Betting on entrepreneurs
NASA is encouraging the development of private-sector spacecraft as one option for closing the gap. The agency has allocated almost $500 million between now and 2010 to support California-based SpaceX and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler as they develop new spacecraft that could bring supplies and crews to the space station. The agency recently said the two companies were on schedule for their first flights by 2010.
Two other companies , Virginia-based Transformational Space and the Canadian-American Planetspace venture, are getting free advice from NASA on their own spaceship development efforts.
NASA's Griffin has characterized the program as a gamble on the viability of the space industry's rising entrepreneurial sector. "If it doesn’t work, I’ve frankly made the wrong bet … with a good amount of money that we could have used for other purposes if the entrepreneurial sector is, in fact, not able to step up," he told Space.com last August.
Lawmakers seek more funding
U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, this month proposed increasing NASA's funding by $1 billion. Mikulski also called for a space summit between Congress and the White House to raise the profile of NASA's budget needs.
Slideshow: Month in Space: May 2013 Nelson said the gap could be narrowed to three years if NASA were to get an extra $400 million above the 2008 budget request and an extra $800 million each in 2009 and 2010. NASA's budget request for 2008 is $17.3 billion.
During the last gap in spaceflight, which ended in 1981, the agency had a brain drain in which experienced engineers and technicians left for other opportunities and "essentially, the manned space program went off the radar screen," Lambright said.
"When you don't fly for four or more years, people become stale," Griffin said recently. "Very good people often move into other enterprises where there is more action. Facilities degrade. It's not a good thing."
This report was supplemented by MSNBC.com.
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