NASA, Congress Trade Barbs In Space Exploration Budget Debate

As the impact of budget cuts reverberate through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), administrators of the space agency are being forced to fight each dollar allotted over the next year and how that money will be used.

The space agency's attempts to budget are two-fold: One plan of action involves allowing commercial low-orbit flights to be operated by the private sector. In this situation, NASA would pay private companies for providing its astronauts with transportation services. The other plan of action involves building a brand new launch system for deep-space travel.

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The Space Launch System (SLS) is a next-generation heavy launch vehincle designed by NASA. It will replace the retired Space Shuttle.

Both plans have been scrutinized by legislators, and now, the two programs, though serving different purposes, have been pitted against each other. Ars Technica reports that the key issue in both Senate and House oversight committee hearings was a philosophical difference about how to get humans to space. One involves the private sector, the other doesn't.

Over the past week, NASA officials have had to fight Congress tooth-and-nail over the Obama administration's 2013 budget request, which gives the space agency $17.7 billion in funding, a $59 million drop from 2012. The funding reduction has slowed progress on both of NASA's two latest programs.

The legislation issue that's played out over the past week -- both in the Senate and the House -- is currently hinged on how to get humans into space. Legislators have favored NASA's Space Launch System(SLS), reports Ars Technica, as opposed to the Commercial Crew Development program (CCDev).

I am committed to commercial being a part of our future, but not at the expense of our vital NASA employee sector and the building of the next vehicle that's going to take us beyond where we are, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R - TX) before the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation committee according to MSNBC. We can't fudge on the future in that way.

Budgeting complications prevented the CCDev program from taking full flight. Congress has cut funding for the commercial crew program to $400 million, which is less than 50 percent of NASA's initial request in funding. The tight budget has caused the space taxi program to be expected later than was aoriginally thought. The service was supposed to be available by early 2016, but that is no longer the case according to NASA officials.

Given current funding levels we anticipate the need to purchase [Russian] crew transportation and rescue capabilities into 2017, said Charles Bolden, head of National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to a House Science Committee In written testimony according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Both Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp are vying to develop commercial-space transportation programs. NASA will likely pick companies to receive the next phase of funding in the upcoming months. 

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