It is time to reauthorize the U.S. civil space program again. Thanks to circumstances that have nothing to do with space exploration, there is a slim chance there may be a fundamental debate on what the nation wants to do in space. With the looming threat of additional across-the-board cuts in NASA spending under the deaf-and-dumb funding sequestration process, lawmakers and relevant White House operatives might see a need to drop the posturing that has painted U.S. civil space into a corner and make some hard choices. Don't hold your breath, but the situation is getting pretty stark.

“If the budget remains approximately the same, my judgment is that there are two basic choices—a space station-focused human spaceflight program, or an exploration-focused program,” says Tom Young, who joined NASA in 1961, ran the Viking program and Goddard Space Flight Center and retired as executive vice president of Lockheed Martin. “I do not believe the budget is adequate to accomplish both, and a choice needs to be made to have a credible path forward.”

Young is testifying to the House Science space subcommittee, which has cranked up the NASA-reauthorization process with a draft two-year bill that provided plenty of fodder for discussion on its first public outing June 19. That same day, the lawmaker who will guide the reauthorization process in the Senate offered his summation of the future for U.S. human spaceflight.

“If you want to play footsie with the tea party, you might just as well say sayonara to the manned space program,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told the Space Transportation Association.

Nelson is referring to sequestration, and the tea party budget hawks who jawboned Congress into abdicating its constitutional responsibility to guide public spending. He has heard from NASA on what will happen if more blind cuts come at the end of the fiscal year.

“This is really going to be tough for us moving forward,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told Nelson's Senate Commerce space subcommittee, stressing that sequestration cuts in the out years will mean “we can't deliver the programs that we've committed to you we would deliver.”

Continued sequestration will probably delay the first flight test of the Orion crew capsule, scheduled next year to gather data on its large heat shield. Also cast into question will be the schedules for the planned 2017 first flight of the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), the first crewed flight of an Orion in 2021 and the new asteroid-capture mission outlined in the agency's fiscal 2014 budget request.

That mission faces rough sledding even without sequestration, since key House Republicans consider it half-baked even as NASA scrambles to sell it as a planetary-protection tool (AW&ST June 24, p. 39). But the others remain in the draft reauthorization bill floated in the House. And unlike NASA and the White House, which publicly pretend sequestration will not continue, the authors of the House bill at least are considering the possibility.

Section 213 of the House draft requires NASA to set “contingencies” for developing commercial crew vehicles if sequestration extends into fiscal 2014, directing NASA to say how it would manage the work with appropriations of $500 million, $600 million, $700 million and $800 million “over three years.”

Gerstenmaier testified that without about $800 million per year, the commercial partners working on commercial crew—Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX—will not be able to fly by the end of 2017, as planned. To tighten the noose, the House bill would set that as a deadline and require the agency to develop a strategy to ensure that at least one of the companies crosses the finish line before time is up.

Nelson worries Congress will end up trying to throw together spending, tax and other important legislation at the last minute after a year of partisan posturing. But there is an alternative—an up-front debate of what the U.S. should be doing in space, and how much the nation is willing to spend on it. If Tom Young is right about the choice facing Congress and the White House, the cramped interior of the International Space Station may be as far as we go for the foreseeable future. That would be a shame.

Ed Lu, the astronaut practicing on the station's keyboard in this shot of the Destiny lab module, epitomizes what would be lost if the U.S. government pulls up short of the wide-open heavens. Lu now runs the B612 Foundation, which is raising funds for a space telescope to spot asteroids that might threaten Earth. His choice illustrates the strong pull of deep space and the value of continuing to probe it. Maybe the politicians and the budget wonks will follow Lu's example this year.