HOUSTON, TEXAS — Two recent U.S. reports by the National Research Council in December, and the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel in January, have criticized U.S. space policy for lacking focus and also the funds necessary to carry out the goals set by the president and Congress. The reports echoed the complaints of many critics, including a number of former astronauts, who say the space shuttle program should not have been ended before there was another vehicle to replace it.
When the U.S. space shuttle was still flying, the Johnson Space Center in Houston was a busy place.
But now, all the shuttles are in museums and the Johnson Space Center has laid off hundreds of highly skilled technicians.
That's a shame, according to former Johnson Space Center director George Abbey, who is now at Rice University.
“Those programs and those people are gone to us, and trying to rebuild that now is going to be a real challenge,” Abbey said.
The new director of the Johnson Space Center is former astronaut Ellen Ochoa, who is working with what is left of the U.S. human spaceflight program.
“Programs do come and go. That is not always within our control here, but we want to work as hard at what is within our control, which is making our current operational programs in human space flight successful,” Ochoa said.
Ochoa says the Johnson Space Center continues its role as mission control for the International Space Station, while NASA develops new rockets and seeks cost-effective ways of using older technology.
“We understand that we are under budget constraints. We want to make as much use of many things that we already have in development,” Ochoa said.
But experts at a recent conference at Rice University said the U.S. space program is being undermined by politics.
Professor Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College says the 2010 proposal to visit an asteroid is an example of a goal with no plan.
“It's been three years now and I would suggest if that is, in fact, a goal they are serious about, there ought to be first steps taken,” Johnson-Freese said.
The conference panel also called for more coordination between U.S. government laboratories, the Defense Department and NASA - and for more international cooperation.
Former U.S. astronaut and International Space Station commander Leroy Chiao cites successful cooperation with Russia as a guide.
“I think we should expand that leadership to include countries like China. China is the only other country - only other entity right now - capable of launching astronauts into space,” Chiao said.
But cooperation with China on space endeavors has been blocked by Congress, and funding of the U.S. program is threatened by Congressional budget battles.
Still, Ochoa remains upbeat about NASA's future.
“We are doing everything we can, day by day, to move exploration forward," Ochoa said.
But NASA's ambitious plans for space exploration will ultimately depend on cost-conscious lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, now struggling to reduce the nation's massive budget deficit.