Federal budget cuts threaten NASA's space travel plans

May 16, 2013 5:05:26 PM PDT
The budget fight in Washington is hitting the space program. NASA says thanks to the sequester, its goals of future space travel may be put on hold.

NASA is trying to make plans amid the sequester and budget uncertainty. It's no easy task, but NASA administrator Charles Bolden says the space agency's three priorities right now are clear.

Every day for the last 13 years, a NASA astronaut has been working aboard the International Space Station. Bolden calls it and the research conducted there the "springboard" which will lead us into the next phase of exploration.

Getting there alone is a challege still, as no commerical company yet has developed a vehicle for us to get our astronauts into space. Bolden just authorized spending over $450 million through 2017 for us to keep hitching a ride there with the Russians.

"Thats the last check I want to write to somebody outside the United States," Bolden said.

The next priority is figuring out a way to get to a near-Earth asteroid. But the ultimate goal, by sometime in the 2030s, is to have humans exploring Mars.

All that costs money, and Bolden says NASA's $16.8 billion budget request gets chopped to just $16.1 billion if the seqester is not rectified.

"At the $16.1 billion level, there is no way in the world they can continue to operate a center like JSC at the level of employment that we have right now," Bolden said.

Bolden laments this would mean cutbacks at all NASA centers, primarily contractors. But furloughs for civil servants, he confides, could also become necessary.

"What we're focused on is what can we get done with the money that we have so that we are continuing to move forward in space," Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa said.

Moving forward has always been NASA's goal. If we can get humans to Mars, maybe one day we can live there -- just in case something cataclysmic happens back home.

"A critical question we have to answer for the world, is can we save the planet if necessary?" Bolden said.

One thing they're working on here is the propulsion systems that would get us to Mars. They've figured out that there is no way to get there using chemical rockets like we have now. Bolden says they are trying to develop solar-electric propulsion. The trick is apparently figuring out how to do it on a scale large enough, strong enough, to do the job, of getting us to Mars.
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