By Eric Berger
Amid uncertainty about its future and that of human spaceflight in general, Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas,
celebrated its 50th anniversary, last week.
With NASA moving
beyond the Houston-based space shuttle program earlier this year, the sprawling Clear Lake center will see its budget cut
by about 25 percent, to $4.5 billion next year.
"That's a very significant cut, and it's painful," said Mike
Coats, Director of Johnson Space Center.
As a result of the
cuts the Houston space center will shed several thousand jobs.
golden anniversary comes as NASA announced plans to develop and build a heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft to allow humans to
fly beyond low-Earth orbit. Test flights could begin as early as 2018.
Although the rocket-building program will not bring new jobs to Houston, it should preserve existing jobs.
Perhaps most importantly it provides a future purpose, beyond controlling the International
Space Station, for a space center originally designated as the Houston Manned Spacecraft Center. The Houston facility was
created to design spacecraft, train astronauts and conduct missions.
Hopes ride with Orion: If NASA follows through on construction of the heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft, Coats
said Johnson Space Center will be able to retain key people needed to fly spacecraft.
But he acknowledged that's a big if.
"To be honest
with you, I'm very concerned about sustainability," he said. "We've canceled something like 25 programs in the last
25 years. That's not a record to be terribly proud of. Sustaining programs, which by definition are multiyear programs, across
multiple administrations and multiple congresses, is just hard."
There are other concerns as well.
In 2009, an independent
committee led by space industry executive Norm Augustine reviewed NASA's human spaceflight program, and its essential recommendation
was to not ask NASA to do too much, with too little funding.
for disaster': There are those who worry NASA is not being given enough money to build the heavy-lift rocket, and there are
concerns that the space program won't be fully funded in a tough economy.
"I'd love to see us have a really strong space program," Augustine said in an interview. "But rather
than have a space program with great ambitions and inadequate money, I'd rather have a lesser space program with adequate
money. Most everyone will say that, until push comes to shove, then they will say, 'Well, we'll do our best.' That's a formula
for disaster." For now, NASA will have to hope that Congress and the White House provide the funding they've promised.
Looking ahead Coats said he envisions a NASA that has not only
sent humans to Mars in the next 50 years of exploration, but also built a permanent presence there, and even traveled to the
moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
"I hope I'm right," he
Other nations poised: But if not Americans, Coats said
that China, India and other countries around the world are eager to pursue exploration goals, and that whether as individual
countries or as part of a global enterprise, he believes humans are destined to explore.
Indeed, even back in 1961, NASA was looking beyond the moon.
When the Houston space center opened its doors
the special assistant to then-director Robert Gilruth, Paul Purser, issued a "questions and answers" letter to the
media. Among the questions was whether the moon was the "ultimate goal" of the exploration program.
"No, the moon is not the ultimate goal of our space exploration program,"
Purser said. "It is actually a stepping-off point to outer space, sort of a stepping stone to the planets. Probably the
next generation will look on our efforts over the next decade as only the baby steps in the space program."
[Eric Berger wrote this report for Houston Chronicle.]