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The shape of space to come

Artwork shows SpaceX's Dragon capsule delivering cargo to the International Space Station.
Artwork shows SpaceX's Dragon capsule delivering cargo to the International Space Station.SpaceX

The lines of debate over the future of space exploration are becoming clearer — and it doesn't necessarily add up to a pretty picture. NASA's $35 billion Space Launch System is just a piece of the puzzle: This week's developments also touch upon SpaceX, the James Webb Space Telescope and next-gen technologies. Here are a few not-so-easy pieces to muse over during the weekend:

James Webb Space Telescope: A House panel stirred up a ruckus earlier this summer when it called for canceling the JWST, the grand observatory widely regarded as Hubble's heir. The problem is that the project is way behind schedule and over budget. Now the Senate Appropriations Committee has released its version of the fiscal 2012 bill that covers NASA's budget, and it provides just enough money to keep the JWST on track, based on NASA's current projections. Some observers are exulting that the next-gen telescope has been "saved," but there's a long way to go yet, including House-Senate budget negotiations.

Space Launch System: The same Senate bill follows through on the SLS plan that senators worked out with NASA and the White House. It would provide $3 billion during the next fiscal year ($1.8 billion for the rocket, $1.2 billion for the multipurpose crew vehicle), just as NASA projected. A $17 billion cost cap is also specified for work through fiscal 2017. That compares with NASA's estimate of $18 billion earlier in the week. New-space opposition to the SLS plan is continuing, with the Space Access Society and the Space Frontier Foundation weighing in against what they see as a money-gobbling white elephant. But one of the Senate bill's provisions would hold back $200 million of the $500 million allotted for NASA's commercial crew program unless NASA makes good on its promise to get to work on the SLS. For details on the Senate bill, check out the Space Politics blog and Space News.

SpaceX schedule: California-based SpaceX, which is arguably the country's most successful new-space venture, voiced support for the $500 million commercial crew plan laid out by the Senate bill. The company had been due to launch an uncrewed Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station on Nov. 30, as the final test opening the way for U.S. cargo resupply flights in the post-shuttle era. But this week, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that mission might have to be postponed until January or February, due to the launch delays caused by last month's problem with a Soyuz rocket. What's more, RIA Novosti quoted a Russian space official as saying that SpaceX does not have permission to dock with the space station. "So far, we have no proof that this spacecraft duly complies with the accepted norms of spaceflight safety," said Roscosmos' Alexei Krasnov. That led NASA to issue a Twitter retort: "A decision has yet to be made regarding the upcoming @SpaceXer test flight to ISS."  

Wild-card technologies: There's good news and bad news for space technology fans. First, the good news: NASA announced awards totaling up to $3 million to five companies working on solar electric propulsion, the kind of technology that many experts think will be needed for a mission to Mars. Today, NASA announced additional awards amounting to more than $3.7 million for two "game-changing" space technologies: beamed power (for ground-to-air and ground-to-ground applications) and next-generation lithium-ion batteries (for future space missions). Now for the bad news: The Senate bill for fiscal 2012 trims almost $400 million from President Barack Obama's $1.02 billion request for space technology initiatives. (The good news is that it's more than what the House bill would provide.)

How do you see the space picture shaping up? Feel free to add your comments below.

More puzzle pieces to ponder:

The best source for keeping up with the new space race is Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News. But if you're interested in this subject, you probably knew that already.

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.