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Obama's NASA plan draws fire

| Friday, April 2, 2010

The Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON -- In announcing his new vision for NASA, President Obama proposed nearly $2 billion for improvements at Kennedy Space Center as one key to transforming NASA into a leaner, meaner agency that would rely on private rockets to blast astronauts into space.

The administration reserved an entire page of its 22-page, $19 billion budget proposal in February to tout the upgrade, broadly describing plans to modernize the space center's 1960s infrastructure and open it up for commercial rocket launches.

But two months later, those plans remain nebulous.

And as Obama prepares for an April 15 trip to the Space Coast, the money has become a target for congressional critics who see it as an example of all that's wrong with his NASA proposal.

"It has no vision, and it has no goal," said Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who grilled NASA chief Charlie Bolden at a recent House appropriations hearing. "Right now, there are not the votes to do what the administration wants to do. If there was a vote, it would go down in flames."

Wolf and others complain that Obama's vision -- ending the Constellation moon-rocket program, relying on private rockets to launch astronauts to the International Space Station and ordering NASA to research new technologies to allow human exploration of the solar system -- would leave the agency without a rocket capable of carrying humans into space.

Worse, they say, there's no schedule for construction of a new rocket -- and no ultimate destination beyond vague talk of "the inner solar system" or Mars. Some have insisted that the administration retain the Constellation program, which has cost $9 billion since 2005, even though its initial goal of returning to the moon by 2020 is a decade or more behind schedule.

The dispute has cast a shadow over the president's upcoming trip to Florida -- and over the money for Kennedy, which stands to lose 9,000 jobs when the space shuttle is retired later this year. Space center officials hope that job loss could be partially offset by the $2 billion to modernize the facility during the next years.

But that's not been enough to earn the support of even the two House lawmakers from the Space Coast. Reps. Suzanne Kosmas, a Democrat, and Bill Posey, a Republican, have jointly filed a measure that would extend the space shuttle era beyond its final four flights and accelerate the development of a NASA-built replacement.

Theirs isn't the only move against the Obama NASA plan.

Lawmakers are threatening to file a congressional resolution in favor of Constellation, and several senators -- including George LeMieux, R-Fla. -- filed a bill last week aimed at preventing Obama from shutting the program.

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