When President Obama signed a $19bn, three-year NASA budget authorization bill earlier this month, a vision for the future of the space program began to come into focus, but only just. It's clear that the Constellation program will be mostly scrapped, and that the agency will rely on private firms for some missions to the ISS. But with a tough appropriations process ahead, and vague wording in the bill, NASA's biggest partners--including the European Space Agency--are left wringing their hands, asking an alarmingly basic question: What now?
The worries of the ESA, as well as Japan's JAXA, France’s CNES and Germany’s DLR, were relayed at a conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and reported by Aviation Week. It's not so much the spirit of the bill that's causing difficulties, say the agencies, but the speed at which its moving, and its general lack of clarity.
Andreas Diekmann of the ESA said, "the NASA authorization bill does not provide information on which way we go," while a representative of CNES worried that "it’s not very clear for us what the message is in this new space policy." The problems, they say, come down to logistical estimations. As written, NASA's plan are just comprehensive enough to request money from its appropriations committees, whose actions will determine the eventual fate of the agency's plans. (Deliberations will start, at the very soonest, sometime in November.)
To an agency watching NASA for guidance, this is about two degrees, and too many months, away from being actionable. Until it's clear which parts of the bill will come to pass, the ESA, JAXA and CNES and DLR will find it difficult to request funding from their own governments, particularly for projects that entail cooperating with NASA.
This anxiety has already had real effects: Aviation Week reports that JAXA has already slowed its development of a lunar probe, as well as work on a planned followup to the asteroid-visiting Hayabusa. Other agencies' concerns are centered on the ISS, the fate of which is deeply tied to this bill.
And it's not that these agencies are asking for help--quite the opposite. NASA, which is still an obvious and acknowledged leader among the world's space agencies, just needs to be a bit clearer about what their plans means for the rest of the space-going world.
Image of the Hayabusa probe courtesy of NEC