The White House will conduct a review of US space strategy in the wake of last week's hard-hitting report on the loss of the space shuttle Columbia — and members of Congress have joined NASA in pledging to reform the space agency itself.

But early soundings in Washington suggest that the manned-spaceflight programme will face an uphill struggle to attract the extra resources that, the report implied, it needs to operate more safely.

The Columbia investigation, led by retired Navy admiral Harold Gehman, was unsparing in its criticism of NASA, as expected (see Nature 424, 863; 2003). The report also castigated the White House and Congress for underfunding the shuttle programme, which had its budget cut by 40% in real terms during the 1990s.

In a press conference held on 26 August to unveil the report, Gehman called for “a very vigorous public-policy debate about what do we do now” in space, and warned that human spaceflight, if done safely and well, will require much more resources than the United States has been spending. “This stuff is not cheap,” he said.

But in the immediate aftermath of the report, few congressional leaders were ready to pledge more money to the space programme. Sherwood Boehlert (Republican, New York), who chairs the House of Representatives science committee, says that if NASA “is expecting us to write a blank cheque, we're unwilling to do so”. Nor is it certain, he adds, that the astronaut programme will continue. “My own predisposition is to continue manned spaceflight, but not at any cost, and not at any risk.” Any push to increase NASA funding will have to come from the Bush administration. “We're going to have to have clear direction from the White House,” says Boehlert.

Last year the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security Council led a review of US space policy that was nearly complete at the time of the Columbia accident. That project was shelved but now is being revived with the Gehman report in mind, for completion early next year, just in time to feed into the Bush administration's 2005 budget request.

Meanwhile, NASA may report as early as this week on its latest plan for returning the shuttle to flight. The earlier target launch date of next spring now looks unlikely, as does the pre-accident plan to complete the US segments of the International Space Station within a year of the next shuttle launch. The Gehman panel's report cited pressure to finish the station on schedule as a contributing cause of the accident.

The current US federal deficit and the mounting costs of the war in Iraq make any grand expansion of NASA's budget unlikely, but some commentators say that political factors may be coming together for a renewed US commitment to human space exploration. Howard McCurdy, a space-policy expert at the American University in Washington, says that President Bush may be under pressure to make such a commitment. “Historically,” he says, “no major political figure with the authority to make the decision has ever wanted to put his or her fingerprints on a decision to start closing down the manned-spaceflight programme.”