Senators Ted Cruz and Bill Nelson laugh during a subcommittee meeting

Senators Ted Cruz (left) and Bill Nelson (right) laugh during a subcommittee meeting on the future of NASA's human spaceflight program. Credit: C-Span video capture

Ever since President George W. Bush’s decision to retire the space shuttles in the aftermath 2003’s Columbia disaster, NASA’s human spaceflight program has been adrift. Bush told NASA to go back to the Moon. Obama canceled most of those plans, directing the agency instead to a nearby asteroid—a proposal that has proved very controversial among scientists and policymakers. Both administrations held NASA to the unrealistic long-term goal of sending people to Mars with grossly inadequate funding. As the new Republican majority gets settled in Congress and the nation gears up for presidential elections in 2016, it seems increasingly unlikely that a coherent and sustainable plan for the space agency will emerge anytime soon. That reality was evident in Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee.

The meeting was chaired by Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, Tea-Party firebrand and presidential hopeful. Despite his limited-government, cost-conscious reputation, Cruz came across as a booster of an expansive federal program of human spaceflight—or at least an expensive one. He referred to President John F. Kennedy’s boldness in calling for the 1960s NASA moonshots, and went out of his way to express his strong support for the agency’s ongoing development of the Space Launch System (SLS), a hugely expensive heavy-lift rocket that many have criticized as outdated, inefficient and a prime example of pork-barrel spending. Cruz also praised NASA’s burgeoning efforts to outsource launching crew and cargo to the International Space Station using commercial suppliers such as SpaceX and Boeing. SpaceX is also pursuing its own heavy-lift rocket program, which, if successful, could deliver many of the same capabilities as SLS, but at only a fraction of the cost.

“The national space program is a nonpartisan issue,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida and staunch champion of the SLS, responding to Cruz. “Blossoms are breaking out all over Washington, because what you just said, you and I completely agree on.”

Among the guests Cruz invited to testify about the value of human spaceflight at this “critical time” in NASA’s history were Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 pilot and the second man to walk on the Moon, and Mike Massimino, a former space shuttle astronaut and Hubble Space Telescope repairman. Massimino stuck mainly to platitudes about human space exploration creating spin-off technologies, enabling scientific discovery, inspiring young people, and protecting the planet. He did not mention that there are cheaper, more direct ways of accomplishing those things than sending astronauts to Mars. Although his remarks were serious and considered, they perhaps relied too much on the flawed assumption that taxpayers and politicians will be eager to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on human spaceflight because it sometimes makes them feel good.

Aldrin’s testimony couldn’t have been more different. With a vivacity that belied his 85 years, he explained his “Unified Space Vision”—a plan for NASA to surpass its Apollo-era greatness by permanently settling Mars. Aldrin’s idea is to send astronauts on a one-way trip to Mars, because bringing them back would be prohibitively expensive. In his vision, the U.S. would build an interplanetary “cycler” mothership to ferry colonists to Mars, and along the way it would work with the other spacefaring nations and corporations to build moon bases and space stations, visit asteroids, and send an all-female crew on a flyby of Venus. Such audacious efforts, Aldrin said, will be vital to preserve America’s global preeminence through the remainder of the 21st century.

Aldrin ran into some trouble when his cell phone unexpectedly rang during his testimony. After Aldrin fumbled with the phone for several long seconds, Cruz quipped: “Tell us if that’s a call from the space station.”

In a perfect world of unlimited funding and total commitment to space exploration, Aldrin’s all-of-the-above plan would probably work beautifully. However, it seems utterly disconnected from prevailing social, political, and economic realities.

The most surprising moment in Tuesday’s meeting was the measured testimony of Walter Cunningham, the Apollo 7 astronaut who believes that climate change is “one of the greatest scientific hoaxes in history,” according to written testimony submitted beforehand. Appearing before the committee, however, Cunningham steered clear of the “hoax” to emerge as seemingly one of the meeting’s most rational and pragmatic witnesses. NASA, he said, is underfunded and overburdened by too many centers and too many objectives. Politics has “infected the agency,” he said. It sounds perfectly reasonable, except that Cunningham was referring obliquely to NASA’s participation in global-warming research.

Cunningham was gloomy on the future of space travel. “Unless the country, which is Congress here, decided to put more money in it, this is just talk that we’re doing here,” he said. “NASA’s budget is way too low to do all the things that we’ve talked about doing here this afternoon.”

In the ramp-up to a new Presidential administration in 2016, expect more high-level hearings and reports about the nation’s troubled, stretched-too-thin space program, but don’t expect much in the way of progress or solutions. Whether aiming for the Moon, asteroids, or Mars, NASA’s astronauts seem set to just circle the Earth for quite some time yet.