White House plans to axe NASA's return-to-the-Moon Constellation programme and ground the Space Shuttle have sparked unified opposition from Congress, which looks determined to preserve a full spectrum of US manned spaceflight activities.

A draft Congressional bill leaked to Flight International sets out the politicians' alternate plan. It involves possibly extending Shuttle life to 2015, running competitive commercial crew and cargo programmes and continuing development of Constellation's vehicles including a heavylift rocket designed to get astronauts to the Moon in the 2020s and then Mars.

In a heated hearing on Capitol Hill, President Obama's NASA administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and Shuttle commander, had to defend his deputy Lori Beth Garver and the president's plan to shift NASA's focus from missions to capabilities under the fiscal year 2011 budget request.

In the 24 February hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee's science and space subcommittee one senator criticised Garver as the alleged author of the plan and budget, which the subcommittee's members described as ending all US human spaceflight efforts with its retirement of the Shuttle fleet this year and cancellation of the Constellation.

Referring to the space programme as bipartisan, subcommittee chairman senator Bill Nelson of Florida says of the opposition to the Obama plan: "I have never seen [Congress] as unified as we are now."

Much of the Congressional opposition to Obama's plan stems from estimates pegging direct job losses from cutting Constellation, Shuttle and other programmes at 30,000, including 7,000 at the Kennedy Space Center.

Bolden told the hearing that the Obama exploration goal was Mars, but during the early February budget roll-out he said that the plan's destinations would be decided by a "national conversation".

Source: Flight International