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Showdown over space policy

Rocketeers ranging from SpaceX's millionaire founder to the maverick engineers behind the DIRECT heavy-lift design effort are sounding the alarm over a space spending bill due for consideration by the House on Friday. Their bottom line: Support the Senate version of the bill instead.

H.R. 5781, the House's version of the $19 billion NASA authorization bill for fiscal 2011, lops off most of $6 billion being sought by the Obama administration for boosting the development of commercial spaceships capable of bringing astronauts to the International Space Station over the next five years. Instead, it would put more money into the internal NASA rocket development program - although not as much as previously budgeted under a plan that an independent panel said was "not viable."

For a detailed analysis of the various plans, check out this comparison from the Space Foundation, and this Popular Mechanics commentary by Rand Simberg.

Many folks on the entrepreneurial space frontier say the House spending plan is so deficient that the Senate version must prevail, even though it also short-changes commercial space development. They say the alternative could be an extended period of dependence on the Russians for crew transport.

Interestingly enough, folks on the other side of the argument - including Apollo spacewalkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan - mirror that argument, insisting that relying on commercial space would lead to dependence on the Russians. They don't think commercial space providers will be able to deliver on their promises. House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said last week that "we cannot be dependent on yet-to-be-developed commercial crew systems for U.S. access to the ISS and low Earth orbit, lest we make the would-be commercial providers 'too big to fail' before we have proof that they can succeed."

Cernan, who commanded the last Apollo mission to the moon in 1972, has been quoted as saying that "the commercial sector is still walking around like a young kid learning to walk. They don't know what the risks are. They don't know what they don't know."

Such claims, however, run counter to the fact that commercial ventures, including the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, have been involved in the human spaceflight effort since Apollo. The difference is that NASA would be paying fixed prices for space services rather than following its traditional cost-plus pricing formula. It's really a question of rethinking the financial underpinnings of the space business rather than its technological foundations.

Critics of the commercial approach to spaceflight also worry that it will lead to widespread dislocation for the nation's aerospace workforce - with this week's layoff notices for space shuttle workers held up as an example. Preserving traditional space jobs is a prime motivation for the House's approach to the spending bill. But up-and-coming players in the space business - including California-based SpaceX, which conducted a successful first test of its Falcon 9 rocket last month - say they are creating thousands of new jobs to offset job losses elsewhere.

Friday's debate in the House could lead to a quick vote under a "suspension of the rules" that would limit the time for debate and amendments, but would also require a two-thirds majority. That prospect led to a chorus of bugle calls from the House bill's opponents:

In an e-mail alert, SpaceX founder Elon Musk asked recipients to call their representatives in Congress and urge them to vote "no" on H.R. 5781. "SpaceX rarely asks you to take action, so you know it really matters when we do," he wrote. Musk said a five-minute phone call could make a big difference. "The only hope for the average citizen to one day travel in space is in danger due to the actions of certain members of Congress," Musk said. "SpaceX does not have the enormous lobbying power of the big government contractors to stop them, however with your help the day can still be saved."

In a rare news release, the DIRECT rocket development team urged the House to back the Senate bill, which has the support of the White House as well. "The president's support for the Senate bill is a big step in the right direction, a wise meeting of the minds between all of the various stakeholders," DIRECT team founder Ross Tierney said. "If approved, the newly proposed $6.9 billion, 75-ton 'Space Launch System' project, very similar to our 'Jupiter' shuttle-derived system, would represent serious cost savings compared to the $15 billion, 20-ton Ares 1, and would also prevent the repeating of the tragic mistake of the 1970s, when Apollo vehicles, infrastructure and highly skilled personnel were simply discarded at the end of that program." Tierney complained that the House approach would continue work on the "current, problematic and far more expensive medium-lift Ares 1 development program, which is incapable of sending humans beyond Earth without a heavy-lift vehicle needing to be developed later."

In a statement, the nonprofit Planetary Society urged the House leadership to put off consideration of the bill until after Congress' August recess, "allowing a full and open debate and for amendments to improve the bill." The society said it was concerned that the bill deviated significantly "from any plan offered by NASA or any previous administration" - by abandoning any significant investment in exploration technology, turning back the White House's commercialization initiative, leaving out any mention of specific goals for U.S. human spaceflight and reinstating programs "that have been determined to be unsustainable."

In an urgent update, the Space Access Society noted that both the House and Senate versions of the authorization bill fell short of what the White House was asking for in terms of support for commercial space development. But it said that the House version was "far worse" than the Senate's - and that any attempt to approve it should be rejected. "There is a good chance that constituent pressure (that's you!) on congressmen in general can either delay this attempt till August if the votes aren't there, or defeat it outright," the Space Access Society sayd.

In a Twitter update, planetary scientist Alan Stern asked his followers to "call your Congress rep TODAY @ 202-225-3121" to urge a "no" vote on H.R. 5781 and voice support for the Senate version. Stern is a former associate administrator of NASA who now serves as an adviser to suborbital space ventures (and hopes to take a suborbital research flight into space himself). Stern told me that he prefers the Senate wording on support for suborbital research trips under a program known as CRuSR.

For more about the space policy showdown, monitor RLV and Space Transport News as well as Space Politics. And as Stern has said, you should let your representative in Congress know how you feel, by calling 202-225-3121 in Washington, or calling your representative's district office, or sending an e-mail.

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