For exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), the budget includes support for research and development of future heavy-lift launch systems and related technologies, but without a specified timeline for actually building a vehicle.
NASA and the White House seemed to endorse the so-called “Flexible Path” option proposed by the Augustine Committee–an independent panel convened last year to examine NASA’s human spaceflight plans. This approach would eschew an immediate return to the moon in favor of missions to near-Earth asteroids and Lagrange points as stepping stones to eventual missions to the moon and, later, Mars; an approach the panel argued didn’t require the massive up-front expenditures of a moon-first plan.
The budget, though, does not say what those destinations might be, or when NASA could be ready to mount missions beyond LEO. “Rather than setting goals for destinations and timelines, we’re setting goals for capabilities” that can enable such missions, said NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver, at a press conference on Monday.
The budget proposal, by coincidence, came out seven years to the day after the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost on reentry, killing the seven astronauts on board. The Columbia accident set in motion the development of what would become the Vision for Space Exploration.
It’s likely that this new plan will face strong opposition by some members of Congress, particularly those who represent districts with close links to the Constellation program. One key senator made his opposition clear immediately after Monday’s budget release.
“The president’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human spaceflight,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with oversight of NASA. “I will never support a NASA budget that does not have a robust human space exploration program grounded in reality.”
Proponents of commercial human spaceflight, on the other hand, were delighted to see it endorsed in the NASA budget. “NASA investment in the commercial spaceflight industry is a win-win decision,” said Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a group of companies and organizations involved in this fledgling industry. He added that it would “create thousands of high-tech jobs in the United States, especially in Florida, while reducing the spaceflight gap and preventing us from sending billions to Russia.”