For many space-exploration advocates, the moon and Mars appear to be receding, at least as likely near-term destinations for manned missions.
On Monday, the White House announced the 2010 budget proposal for NASA. The proposal scraps the human spaceflight plan unveiled by President George W. Bush in January 2004. The centerpiece of this Vision for Space Exploration was the goal of returning humans to the moon.
Under the fiscal year 2011 budget proposal, NASA’s budget would increase from $18.7 billion to $19 billion. That number would increase slightly each year over the next five years, totaling more than $100 billion. But the budget ends the Constellation program, which aimed to return humans to the moon by 2020. The program included the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, as well as the Orion crew spacecraft.
Constellation “was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies,” the White House explained in a document summarizing the NASA budget. Even if Constellation was on budget and schedule, it added, “NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives.”
In its place, NASA plans to turn to the commercial sector for putting astronauts in orbit. “Commercial launch vehicles have for years carried all U.S. military and commercial–and most NASA–satellites to orbit,” the White House release noted. Supporting the development of commercial systems that can carry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS)–which will see its operational life extended to at least 2020 in the proposed budget–will be a cornerstone of the new policy. NASA plans to spend up to $6 billion over five years on this effort, starting with $500 million in the 2011 budget.
The budget proposal also includes $7.8 billion over five years to develop new “critical technologies” needed for future exploration plans. NASA cited several examples of such technologies, including in-orbit propellant transfer, which could allow spacecraft to refuel in space; automated rendezvous and docking systems for spacecraft; closed-loop life support systems that could permit long-duration human missions without requiring large amounts of water, air, and other supplies; and inflatable modules that could enhance use of the ISS. Such technologies could not only support future NASA exploration missions but also private spaceflight efforts under development by companies such as Bigelow Aerospace, Orbital Sciences, and SpaceX.