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Lawmakers Voice Support for NASA Moon Program

Members of a key Congressional committee on Tuesday voiced support for NASA's Constellation program, designed to get astronauts back to the moon.

The comments came a week after an expert panel said NASA's plans were not possible, given its current budget.

The occasion was an appearance by Norman Augustine, head of a committee formed to consider the future of human space exploration. The Augustine committee sent a summary report to the White House last week saying NASA needs at least an extra $3 billion a year to implement the Constellation moon program. The report also included several alternatives to that program.

At a feisty session on Tuesday, Congress was having none of those alternatives, starting just minutes into the two-hour hearing.

"NASA has been working for more than four years on the Constellation program, a development program in support of which Congress has invested billions of dollars over that same period," said Science Committee chairman Bart Gordon. "As a result I think that good public policy would tell us that there needs to be a compelling reason to scrap what we've invested our time and money in over the past several years."

The Democratic chairman's words were echoed minutes later by the top Republican on the Science Committee, Ralph Hall.

"It is hard for me to understand why the president is seeking new options at all when there has been an agreed-upon plan for several years. Why don't we just fund the program we've all agreed to?"

But Norman Augustine stressed that by his committee's analysis, NASA's Constellation program — given the current budget — is, as they might say at the space agency, a no-go.

"And the reason for that, the primary reason, is the mismatch between the task to be performed and the funds that are available to support those tasks."

The Augustine report includes several options for human spaceflight, but in his Congressional appearance, Mr. Augustine emphasized that they were just that — options, not recommendations.

"We've tried very hard not to wind up being in the position where we make a recommendation as to a program, but each of the options does have liabilities, including the current program. All the others have them, too. Each has their benefits, and it's really up to the decision maker to make a judgment as to how to weigh those."

When Augustine referred to the "decision maker," he was talking not only about President Obama, but also about Congress, which appropriates the money to pay for space exploration. Most of the options in the Augustine report were based on a budget increase of $3 billion a year. By comparison, NASA's current budget for all its programs is about $18 billion.