Fla. senator hits White House over reported NASA budget plan

Budget to be unveiled today is said to cut NASA's plans to return humans to the moon

A Florida senator is taking the White House to task for reportedly shifting NASA priorities and derailing the agency's plans for manned space flight.

Reports surfaced late last week that President Barack Obama's 2011 budget plan, slated to be unveiled early this afternoon, doesn't include funds for NASA's planned project to return humans to the moon's surface.

The White House budget plan reportedly aims to push the space agency in a new direction.

"Based on initial reports about the administration's plan for NASA, they are replacing lost shuttle jobs in Florida too slowly, risking U.S. leadership in space to China and Russia, and relying too heavily on unproven commercial companies," said Sen. Bill Nelson, (D-Fla.) in a statement on his Web site. "If the $6 billion in extra funding is for a commercial rocket, then the bigger rocket for human exploration will be delayed well into the next decade. That is unacceptable."

Nelson added, "We need a plan that provides America with uninterrupted access to space while also funding exploration to expand the boundaries of our knowledge."

NASA scientists had been preparing in recent years for what the agency calls the Constellation moon landing plan initiated by former President George W. Bush.

The latest budget plan reportedly ends the NASA plan to send humans back to the moon by 2020. And instead of building rockets to replace the retiring space shuttle fleet, several billion dollars will be set aside for contracts with private companies whose spacecraft will be used to ferry NASA astronauts on space missions.

Under the Constellation plan, NASA had been exploring ways to not only return astronauts to the moon, but also to build a lunar outpost. The current NASA plan includes first sending next-generation robots and machines to the moon to create a landing area for spacecraft, and a base that can support human life.

In June, NASA launched two lunar satellites in what it called the opening act in the long-term plan to send humans to the moon. The satellites -- the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite - were designed to provide new information about the moon.

In an October NASA mission, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, known as LCROSS, slammed into the moon in an attempt to kick up what scientists believe is water ice hiding in the bottom of a permanently dark crater. Scientists have been hoping that if a human outpost is created on the moon, people there could have access to water there instead of having to haul it up from Earth.

Plans to return to the moon have been in question since the Obama administration last May called for an independent review of NASA's human space flight activities.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, send e-mail to sgaudin@computerworld.com or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed .

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