NASA budget for 2011 eliminates funds for manned lunar missions
Monday, February 1, 2010
NASA's grand plan to return to the moon, built on President George W. Bush's vision of an ambitious new chapter in space exploration, is about to vanish with hardly a whimper. With the release Monday of President Obama's budget request, NASA will finally get the new administration's marching orders, and there won't be anything in there about flying to the moon.
The budget numbers will show that the administration effectively plans to kill the Constellation program that called for a return to the moon by 2020. The budget, expected to increase slightly over the current $18.7 billion, is also a death knell for the Ares 1 rocket, NASA's planned successor to the space shuttle. The agency has spent billions developing the rocket, which is still years from its first scheduled crew flight.
It remains to be seen whether Congress will accede to Obama's change in direction. Industry insiders expect a brutal fight in Congress. The early reaction to media reports about the budget request has been filled with howls of protest from lawmakers in districts that would be most affected by a sharp change in strategy.
Obama's budget, according to a background briefing by an administration official on Sunday, will call for spending $6 billion over five years to develop a commercial spacecraft that could taxi astronauts into low Earth orbit. Going commercial with a human crew would represent a dramatic change in the way NASA does business. Instead of NASA owning the spacecraft and overseeing every nut and bolt of its design and construction, a private company would design and build the spacecraft with NASA looking over its shoulder.
Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who championed the Constellation program, views the Obama budget as disastrous for human space flight.
"It means that essentially the U.S. has decided that they're not going to be a significant player in human space flight for the foreseeable future. The path that they're on with this budget is a path that can't work," Griffin said, anticipating the Monday announcement.
He said that, although he pushed for seed money for commercial cargo flights to space, he doesn't believe that the commercial firms, such as SpaceX and Dulles-based Orbital Sciences, are ready to take over the risky and difficult job of ferrying human beings to orbit.
"One day it will be like commercial airline travel, just not yet," Griffin said. "It's like 1920. Lindbergh hasn't flown the Atlantic, and they're trying to sell 747s to Pan Am."
John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said the critics underestimate the maturity of the commercial sector.
"The Defense Department began using commercial rockets a long time ago to launch priceless national security satellites, that our troops' lives depend on. If the Pentagon can trust private industry with this responsibility, we think NASA can, too," Gedmark said.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Sunday, "The president is committed to a robust 21st-century space program, and his budget will reflect that dedication to NASA. NASA is vital not only to spaceflight, but also for critical scientific and technological advancements. The expertise at NASA is essential to developing innovative new opportunities, industries and jobs. The president's budget will take steps in that direction."
The administration estimates the new funding for the commercial program would create up to 1,700 jobs, which could help offset the expected loss of 7,000 jobs in Florida when the space shuttle is retired next year.
Although the Obama budget would give NASA a boost of more than $1 billion a year, it's not nearly as much as the $3 billion a year that a president-appointed panel said last year would be necessary for NASA to pursue a worthwhile human space flight program. The panel, headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, was harshly critical of NASA's strategy, saying that Constellation didn't have nearly the funds to meet its stated goal of a 2020 moon landing, particularly if the space station were to be kept operational.
The panel favored a new strategy for NASA in which returning to the moon would be just one possible element of a broader capacity to launch astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. No human beings have ventured farther than such an orbit since the last Apollo moon landing in 1972.
The public announcement of NASA's new direction will culminate more than a year of closed-door strategizing. That should end Monday with a series of press conferences, interviews and the messages contained in the budget itself.