A SpaceX Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station.
Among the competing portfolios in America's vast government, NASA normally rests quietly as a low-tier agency. It lacks the huge budgets allocated to defence or welfare. No US president has won or lost an election on space policy. The heady days of the 1960s and a frantic Moon Race between two superpowers are long behind us.
Every year, NASA is allocated a slice of the federal budget pie, and carries on fairly quietly. At the moment, however, NASA is at the centre of a perfect storm of economics, local politics and international affairs.
America's space agency has been searching for a new direction for its program for more than a decade. The ageing International Space Station has around ten years of operations left, and NASA needs to start planning its next step. Disagreements are raging in boffin circles, and are complicated by turf wars between lawmakers and aerospace companies. Wild ideas such as cramming two astronauts into a capsule and flying them past Mars on a 500-day mission are complemented by proposals for snaring an asteroid in deep space and towing it back to lunar orbit. Observers are perplexed by NASA's ongoing lack of direction.
The Russian annexation of Crimea has brought a sharp focus on America's dependence on Russia as its only supplier of astronaut launches. Having retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA must pay hefty sums to buy seats on board Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which uses a design little changed from the 1960s.
Simply deciding not to launch astronauts is not an option, as NASA is the 'anchor tenant' in the International Space Station. For the moment, both nations seem to be working normally aboard the station, but other space projects are apparently being scaled back.
This over-dependence on Russia has highlighted another festering problem for American space flight. Nobody knows when the US will deploy another crew-carrying spacecraft, or who will do it. Rivalries between traditional US military-industrial monoliths and a new generation of start-up aerospace companies have been with us for years, but are now being elevated by geopolitical problems. The US Government has been funding the development of private cargo vehicles for the International Space Station (such as the Dragon capsule built by SpaceX, pictured above) and also hopes that private enterprise will eventually build private vehicles for astronauts. Dragon itself can be modified for this purpose (the latest launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which carries the Dragon capsule to orbit, was cancelled just hours ago and is now scheduled for 18 April).
Yes, Washington money is there, but allegedly not enough to help these companies achieve their goals. Alternative proposals for new rockets and capsules from the traditional aerospace establishment are also being funded. Washington is betting on all horses, but may be spreading its money too thin to win anything.
For the moment, US space policy has suddenly become a matter of strategic prominence. The challenge of a robust Chinese space program also lurks. Normally battles for NASA funding resemble minor fistfights on Capitol Hill. This time, it's more like a knife fight.
Photo courtesy of NASA.