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Shuttle vs. Constellation: The trade-off between funding the Space Shuttle flights and supporting the Constellation Program is illustrated by this graph of NASA’s estimated budget.

Requests for an interview on the topic sent to both the Obama campaign and president-elect Obama’s website were not answered.

Because of the funding shortfalls, instead of an overlap between the Shuttle’s missions to complete the ISS and the first Constellation launches–as originally called for in the Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration–the United States now faces a gap of five years between the planned retirement of the expensive-to-operate Space Shuttle and the expensive-to-develop Constellation Program. Current estimates are that the Constellation Program will not fly earlier than 2015, leaving U.S. astronauts and cargo to hitch rides on other nations’ rockets. Moreover, some experts believe that the delay will be longer.

“The current timescale is unrealistic, and putting it out there has made it more unrealistic because it has created budget tensions,” says Louis Friedman, executive director for the Planetary Society, which last week released its own recommendations for space exploration. The society’s report, titled “Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century,” calls for the Obama administration to retire the Space Shuttle on time and focus on creating a new transportation infrastructure to carry humans to destinations beyond the Moon before landing on the Moon itself. The United States would have to find rides into space on other nations’ rockets to bridge the gap.

The plan, which is the result of an earlier meeting of more than four dozen space experts, focuses on moving past what has already been done. Rather than landing on the Moon to replicate what has already been achieved, the Roadmap calls for the United States to escape the Earth-Moon system and only land on the Moon for a practical reason. “Get the Shuttle retired,” Friedman says. “Get the Ares [rocket] out there. Be the first out into interplanetary space. Keep going further and further for longer durations, always making steps toward Mars. And once the transportation infrastructure is in place, then we focus on using a lunar base for astronaut training.”

The society’s report has met with some criticism, however. The day after it was released, NASA’s chief administrator, Michael Griffin, stressed that, if he were to keep his job, he would require that the Bush administration’s mandate to first establish a base on the Moon before going further remain unchanged.

Some space advocates argue that a big boost in funding for NASA could allow the Obama administration to both keep the Shuttle and continue developing the Constellation Program. In addition, investing in space exploration could help the next president deliver on promises of creating jobs in high-tech industries during the current economic crisis. “One way to look at the space program in these economic times is that it is a jobs program,” AIAA’s Bell says. “It would be bad to encourage people to go into science and technology and then get rid of one of the agencies that is the primary employer for those types of people.”

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Credits: NASA
Video by NASA

Tagged: Business, Communications, NASA, space, policy, space travel

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