When the Bush administration announced a new mission for NASA in January 2004, many dismissed it as a cynical P.R. ploy. Yet it was the first time a U.S. administration had declared that the country’s policy on manned space exploration was to go into space and keep going (see “Toward a New Vision of Manned Spaceflight”).
Given that ambition, the “Report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy” – also dubbed “A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover” – charted an ostensibly reasonable course. It decreed that when construction on the International Space Station finished in 2010, the shuttle would be mothballed. By 2014, a new manned vehicle – the crew exploration vehicle, or CEV – would make its first flight. Astronauts would take the CEV to the Moon by 2020 and would head for Mars in the following decades. Since the Bush administration gave NASA a limited budget with which to achieve this, some said that the White House wasn’t serious; others argued that the tightfistedness was justified, given the agency’s history of overruns. In any case, NASA in 2005 announced a design for a four- to six-astronaut CEV resembling the Apollo command module, which would be boosted into space atop a revamped heavy lift vehicle (HLV). NASA’s new boss, Michael Griffin, described the combo as “Apollo on steroids.”
Because the Bush administration had stipulated that $27 billion of the $104 billion needed for the two vehicles would be freed up only with the shuttle’s retirement and the space station’s completion in 2010, the president’s commission initially called for the first piloted CEV flights for no later than 2014. This would have meant that for four years the official U.S. space program would have had no manned-spaceflight capability, and for eight years taxpayers would have been paying for a program that was doing nothing visibly new. Soon after his appointment, Griffin made clear his displeasure with the plan: “the Apollo spacecraft was brought from contract award to fruition in no more than six years. It seems unacceptable to me that it should take from 2005 to 2014 to do the same thing.”
Under Griffin, NASA now plans to deploy the CEV no later than 2012. Moreover, Griffin has broken with NASA tradition. Under his administration, the agency has taken the position that it doesn’t make sense to use a costly vehicle like the CEV (at approximately $400 million per flight) to resupply the space station if a cheaper alternative exists. In an October 28, 2005, announcement, “Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Space Flight Demonstrations,” the agency solicited proposals from companies to build and launch unmanned cargo delivery systems capable of reaching the space station. Once a company achieves that milestone, NASA said, “proposals will also be solicited for…demonstrations [that] will consist of one or more crewed missions to the International Space Station.” Ultimately, Griffin envisions NASA not just purchasing rockets to carry crew and cargo from commercial firms but even buying propellant from commercially operated fuel stations in Earth orbit.