Budget Charts a New Course for NASA

Moon and Mars missions are scrapped, but radical new technology gets funding.

For many space-exploration advocates, the moon and Mars appear to be receding, at least as likely near-term destinations for manned missions.

Future spacecraft: This illustration shows a reusable spacecraft, called Dragon, that’s being developed by the U.S. company SpaceX.

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.

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.”

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