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Missives launched in space debate

The letters are flying as fast as Falcon 9 rockets as Congress considers what to do about America's space effort.

This week's war of words began with space legend John Glenn's open letter calling for a continuation of the space shuttle program. "Why terminate a perfectly good system that has been made more safe and reliable through its many years of development?" Glenn asked.

That sentiment was seconded today in a statement from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas: "I strongly agree with Senator Glenn, and the concerns expressed by many others, that the simultaneous cancellation of the Constellation program and the retirement of the space shuttle threatens our access to and use of the space station."

Hutchison has introduced legislation that would let NASA extend space shuttle operations as necessary while replacement vehicles are being developed. However, the draft currently under consideration calls for continuing NASA's Constellation spaceship-building effort, including the Ares 1 rocket program that the space agency and the White House are planning to kill.

The Obama administration's current spaceflight plan calls for shutting down the shuttle program by next year, relying on the Russians in the short term for resupply of the International Space Station, and phasing in commercial spacecraft such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule to send payloads into orbit. Eventually those payloads could include NASA's astronauts as well as cargo.

In the meantime, NASA would focus on developing the technologies for going beyond Earth orbit, including new types of craft for deep-space travel (for example, the Orion spaceship that was proposed under Constellation) and a heavy-lift rocket for facilitating their journeys.

Obama's timetable calls for the heavy-lifter to be designed by 2015. But in a letter dated today, 62 members of Congress urged Obama to speed up that timetable. They registered their support for "the immediate development and production of a heavy-lift launch vehicle that, in conjunction with the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, may be used for either lunar or deep-space asteroid exploration to an asteroid and beyond, as you said in Florida."

Yet another letter was sent to Congress today by 56 space leaders - including former astronauts and NASA executives, industry executives and scientists, journalists and activists - urging lawmakers to support Obama's push for commercialization in low Earth orbit and accelerate NASA's push beyond Earth orbit. "The near-term development of commercial human spaceflight and a clearly defined program of human exploration beyond Earth orbit are both essential," the letter said. "Without either, our nation's leadership in space will significantly suffer."

Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute and a former NASA associate administrator, helped orchestrate that particular letter-writing campaign. He told me the aim of the campaign is to show members of Congress (and the press) that the space constituencies known as New Space and Old Space are "drawing together."

"A broad space coalition, recognizing the value of both commercial space and human exploration beyond Earth orbit, is much more powerful than those who would pit us against one another," said Stern, who serves as a representative for the Blue Origin spaceship venture as well as the head of a suborbital research group.

In the past, New Spacers have often compared themselves to the nimble mammals scrambling beneath the feet of clumsy big-aerospace dinosaurs. "That's becoming a flawed analogy," Stern said. "Change is hard, and people have to get used to it."

Stern's own experience of moving from a NASA executive office to the commercial space game is one example showing how New Space and Old Space are merging. Here are three others:

• One of the signers of the space leaders' letter to Congress, former Kennedy Space Center director Jim Kennedy, also signed a letter in April telling Obama that canceling Constellation would be "wrong for our country for many reasons." Today, Kennedy told me that he signed the earlier letter "because I thought it was pushing us toward a better direction." At first, he was reluctant to put his name to the new letter out of concern that he'd end up looking wishy-washy. "I told Alan, 'You really don't want me signing that letter,'" he said. But Stern convinced Kennedy that the letter struck the right balance for America's future space effort. Now Kennedy is on board with a hybrid approach to spaceflight. "What about a two-tier program, where you have commercialization of access to low Earth orbit as well as a public initiative to get people beyond Earth orbit?" Kennedy asked.

• The letter issued today by members of Congress might appear to support the "Old Space" way of doing things, but it got a strong vote of support from SpaceX, the New Space standard-bearer. "It looks like Congress is on the right track, encouraging the administration to move forward as quickly as possible with heavy-lift,” SpaceX Vice President Lawrence Williams told me in an e-mailed statement. “Since President Bush unveiled his Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, the plan has been that NASA would focus its development efforts on moving beyond LEO [low Earth orbit] and use commercially developed rockets to service the ISS." It's worth noting that SpaceX's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, says he's been conducting talks with NASA about a public-private initiative to develop a super-heavy-lift rocket.

• The Commercial Spaceflight Federation serves as the prime industry association for New Space companies, but this week it announced that its newest executive member is United Launch Alliance, a rocket venture created by the Old Space giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin. "We look forward to the day when astronauts are flying to low Earth orbit onboard commercial vehicles such as Atlas and Delta," United Launch Alliance's president and CEO, Michael Gass, said in a statement. "And the track record of success for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 shows that commercial spaceflight can and will be conducted safely."

The launches of all these missives suggest that the debate over America's future space effort is heading into a crucial phase - not only because the shuttles are nearing their scheduled retirement, but also because policymakers will soon have to make budgetary decisions that will have an impact for years to come. The House Science and Technology Committee wants NASA to deliver piles of budget planning documents by Friday, but it remains to be seen whether the space agency can comply that quickly.

Should America spend $3 billion a year to keep the shuttles flying? Should NASA be allowed to shut down the Constellation program, on which $10 billion or so has been spent already? Are there billions of dollars to spare for accelerating the development of a heavy-lift rocket? Will commercial ventures like United Launch Alliance and SpaceX be able to deliver on their promise to close America's spaceflight gap? You can expect more letter-writers to weigh in on these questions in the months ahead - and you have a chance to launch your own missive in the comment section below.

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