NASA lacks a clear vision for the future of US human spaceflight, US Senators told the space agency's chief on Wednesday.
A Senate science subcommittee clashed with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden over President Barack Obama's proposed 2011 budget, which effectively kills the previous administration's goal of returning to the Moon and onto Mars.
Bolden argued that while both he and the White House agreed that the agency's ultimate destination will be the Red Planet, NASA isn't likely to have the necessary technology for at least a decade.
Skeptical lawmakers told the agency it must aim for something specific, rather than just talk about vague ambitions. Several also blasted the budget request for putting US engineers and astronauts out of work for lacking a planned successor to the space shuttle program.
"You don't accomplish great things without a clearly defined mission, and this budget has no clearly defined mission," said Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana.
Under the Bush administration, NASA planned to get astronauts out beyond low Earth orbit by retiring the Space Shuttle this year and the International Space Station in 2015. The idea was to replace these efforts with the Constellation program, which would see two new Ares rockets and a manned spacecraft called Orion capable of returning astronauts to the Moon and then perhaps sending them to Mars.
But Congress never fully supplied NASA with the funds to carry out the plans, leading the Obama administration to make a recommendation to scrap the Constellation program.
"We were living a hallucination," said Bolden told the subcommittee, the Orlando Sentinel reports. "Vision without resources is a hallucination."
"Resources without vision is a waste of time and money," Vitter shot back.
The senator's criticism is rooted in his representation of the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, which produces the space shuttle's external fuel tanks and faces major job losses with the shuttle's retirement.
"I will fight with every ounce of energy I have to defeat this budget or anything like it," Vitter said. "I believe there is great bipartisan support for that."
After the shuttle program hits its planned retirement in September, American astronauts will rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the space station until new spacecraft are available. As part of the budget proposal, NASA hopes to fill that gap in time by sinking funds into private industry-developed launchers and modules.
Democrat Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said that by eliminating the Constellation program "the US is going to be on the sidelines" of space exploration in future decades.
Bolden defended 2011 budget proposal, claiming that it is not "a radical departure from the vision for human space exploration," but rather a more realistic course.
"This [plan] gives NASA a road map to even more historic achievements as it spurs innovation," Bolden told the subcommittee, adding that NASA will provide a more detailed exploration plan in the coming months. ®