Obama budget proposal scraps NASA's back-to-the-moon program

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Obama administration is killing Constellation, NASA's ambitious back-to-the moon program. The decision represents a thunderous demolition of the Bush-era strategy at the space agency, which had already poured $9 billion into a new rocket, the Ares 1, and a new crew capsule, Orion.

Both were years from completion. And now both have been spiked by the administration's 2011 budget, released Monday. The budget includes $2.5 billion over the next two years to shut down Constellation.

Instead of continuing to develop the Ares 1 and Orion, the administration wants to invest $6 billion over five years in a commercial space taxi to carry astronauts into low Earth orbit. The budget would also funnel billions of dollars into developing new space technologies, such as the ability to refuel spacecraft in orbit. What isn't in the budget is a specific target for exploration.

Change does not come easily in the complex and highly political enterprise that is space travel. The Obama plan triggered immediate protests on Capitol Hill.

"The president's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human spaceflight," Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said Monday. "If this budget is enacted, NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science. It will be the agency of pipe dreams and fairy tales."

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.) said, "This is a crippling blow to America's human spaceflight program."

But Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), whose state stands to lose 7,000 jobs when the space shuttle program ends next year, signaled that he will not fight to keep Constellation alive: "When the president says he's going to cancel Constellation, I can tell you that to muster the votes and overcome that is going to be very, very difficult."

The change in course is hardly shocking given the events of the past year. Obama appointed a committee, led by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, to examine options for human spaceflight. The Augustine panel saw no chance that Constellation could succeed in its goal of a 2020 moon landing.

Administrator Charles Bolden said Monday that NASA will pursue technology that will enable astronauts to explore the solar system.

"Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year," Bolden said.

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, a company that could bid on a commercial contract to launch astronauts, said the administration was being realistic in its cancellation of Constellation.

"There is no way there's the appetite for another Apollo-like program with Apollo-like budget expenditures," Musk said.

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