New Plan for NASA

NASA officials today unveiled a new budget for the upcoming fiscal year, a plan that would significantly alter the future of human spaceflight. The Obama administration plan, if enacted by Congress, would cancel the Constellation program for returning astronauts to the Moon, but would greatly increase funding to develop new technologies that could enable future human missions to the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, and Mars. The plan would place greater reliance on private industry for ferrying humans to low-Earth orbit, and it would extend U.S. participation in the International Space Station to 2020.

It will be many years before we see this scene if Congress enacts the proposed NASA budget. But NASA's Constellation Moon program was underfunded and unsustainable according to experts.
NASA

Despite canceling a program in which $9 billion has already been spent, the plan increases NASA's overall funding by $6 billion over the next five years to about $100 billion total. By developing new propulsion technologies, developing capabilities such as on-orbit fuel depots, and new robotic precursor missions to study the environments for future astronauts, the administration and NASA seem to be betting that they can lower costs for deep-space exploration over the long haul. The plan also calls for more international cooperation.

"We will pursue a more sustainable, affordable approach to manned exploration, and facilitate the growth of a new commercial industry," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden during a Monday press conference.

The budget follows closely on the heels of a report issued last year by an independent, nonpartisan committee chaired by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine. The committee, which included former astronauts, engineers, and experts from the aerospace industry, spelled out in clear language what many have been saying for years: the Constellation Moon program has been given woefully inadequate funding to achieve its lofty goals, and it was putting NASA on an unsustainable trajectory toward failure.

Sally Ride, a member of the Augustine committee and America’s first woman in space, strongly endorsed the proposal during the press briefing. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin issued the following statement::

"Today I wish to endorse strongly the President's new direction for NASA. As an Apollo astronaut, I know the importance of always pushing new frontiers as we explore space. The truth is, that we have already been to the Moon — some 40 years ago. A near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster, is just what our Nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century. We need to be in this for the long haul, and this program will allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth. I hope NASA will embrace this new direction as much as I do, and help us all continue to use space exploration to drive prosperity and innovation right here on Earth."

An artist depicts the Constellation program's Orion Crew Expedition Vehicle in low Earth orbit. The CEV would transport astronauts to the Moon. The Obama administration NASA budget would cancel Constellation.
NASA

In general, I liked much of what I heard, and I was encouraged by the fact that the new NASA plan closely follows many of the recommendations set forth by the Augustine committee. Augustine says in a written statement, "The plan released with the President’s FY 2011 budget does appear to respond to the primary concerns highlighted in our committee's report." But I also felt the new plan involves considerable risks, and doesn't yet outline specific mission objectives and timetables.

What I found particularly interesting about the press conference was the Q&A session. Several reporters called in from states such as Florida, Texas, and Alabama — which have major NASA facilities (Kennedy, Johnson, and Marshall) that develop human spaceflight. The questions all centered around what this new plan would entail for jobs in these local areas, and one reporter said that the Florida Congressional delegation has already come out in opposition to the new plan (even though NASA officials claimed the plan would end up modernizing Kennedy and boosting funding for the center).

I need to learn more about this new plan and its ramifications before I can pass judgment. For the future of NASA, the U.S., and human spaceflight, I just hope that the Congressional meat grinder can ultimately evaluate the new NASA plan on its long-term merits and not on its short-term economic impact on local constituencies.

23 thoughts on “New Plan for NASA

  1. William Murray

    I was one of those kids whose imagination was fired by the Apollo moon landings 40 years ago. They inspired me to become an engineer, a job I worked at and enjoyed for 18 years. For the last 6 years I have been a high school teacher of math and physics. I’ve been an amateur astronomer for more than 40 years.

    It’s difficult for me to look at the proposed NASA budget and the directives given to NASA as anything other that the death knell of the American manned space program.

    It’s been 40 years since we set foot on another world in our solar system. I was somewhat hopeful that we would do this again during my lifetime. Now I’m pretty sure it won’t occur again in my lifetime, the lifetime of any of my students or their children.

  2. Joshua

    You can have robotic space exploration without manned space flight, but you can’t have manned space flight without robotic exploration.

    The prior goal seemed rushed. As a STRONG believer in manned space flight this is very disappointing news. However, I would like to see further robotic exploration of the solar system (At Titan especially) instead of rushed manned missions. So this isn’t ALL bad.

    That said, I believe we will find fossils on Mars of prior life and also believe we’ll discover life living on Titan. Fossils will be very hard for robots to find.. so knowing that at 27 I likely will not see manned Mars missions in my life time is unbelievable.

    Here’s hoping that a robot submarine will drift through Titan’s methane lakes within the next 50 years while filming algae of some sorts floating about. ;)

  3. Edward Schaefer

    I must admit that I am very surprised by how positive the reported reactions are to Obama’s space budget. I would have expected general hand wringing over the loss of Constellation. Instead, there is consensus that this is putting NASA on a better footing in the long run. I for one can support that.

    It is long past time to get private industry taking us into space. I will not call that approach perfect, but given adequate opportunity and incentive private industry certainly is capable of producing safe, realiable, and economical space access. I hope the Obama approach works.

  4. ArianA

    The debate over space program has just begun. President Obama proposed to cancel the NASA’s moon program. Plans to go back to the moon have been scrapped, and the Constellation program (which was going to replace the Space Shuttle) is also being laid to rest by the NASA budget cuts. To be fair, it takes more than a few payday loans to fund a NASA mission, but space exploration is the expansion of the sciences in perhaps the noblest of fashions. I knew he had promised to make budget cuts, but maybe the NASA budget wasn’t the right cut to make. I suppose two wars that haven’t done any good are worth it, and NASA isn’t.

  5. John Ray

    I’m very much in favor of robotic and manned space flight programs. I’m very saddened that over the last several decades, the greatest output from America’s space program has been computer generated graphics.

  6. Thomas Erickson T

    Sure I want non totally self supported Lunar base for a huge telescope array on the moon but that is secondary. Asteroids big deal maybe some mining in 50 years. Looks like China will have a man on the moon before the US can get back.
    Read The Case For Mars and the Mars Direct plan by Robert Zubrin. Why we MUST go Mars and using a low cost pre existing technology to get there.The only place in the solar system for an eventual self supporting space colony. Also worried that the US will not have a delivery vehicle for the ISS after the shuttle fleet retires and we will have to rely on the Russians. For national security and other reasons that is not a smart idea. Remember Mars will be at a good conjunction to Earth 2018…only 40 million miles. Wish this president or the next one would issue a proclamation to take men to Mars by 2018( like Kennedy did for the moon) by the Mars Semi Direct approach.

  7. Ellen Papenburg, Drayton Ontario Kanada

    Would the development of a plasma engine (which, I understand is now within the realm of possibilities) not change this whole situation? We might see another course correction in a few years…. Moon and Mars are perhaps not that far away with new propulsion….
    It will also cause us to look at the great free bee we have on earth. Imagine, breathing without a space suit, abundance of life (if we don’t mess it up even further)… what a great planet to live on….

  8. Kyle Davenport

    As usual , no mention in this article of the fact that the _known_ military space budget is larger than NASA’s. Clearly killing brown people and “defending” the empire has a higher priority than space exploration. By the way, your link to “report issued last year” is broken.

  9. Allan Holmgren

    You mean to tell me that after all the money and effort to build the ISS we are only committed to funding until 2020? Boy have we lost our way. Are we going to let it burn up like Skylab? Two things need to be done to make our efforts in space wothwhile. First, keep the shuttle program going. I think it’s proved itself as a reliable launch vehicle. Second, the only way to make a manned Mars mission feasable is to make it a one way trip. A round trip senario will take 35 years and cost 50 billion. A one way mission can be accomplished in 14 years for about 20 billion. On another subject, could someone who has credantials please try to convince NASA and the White House that the James Webb telescope should be redisigned for routine servicing in space and put it in a Trojan points orbit with Hubble to give us a VLBL space telescope with a 3,000 mile base line?

  10. Jeff

    There is no inspiration in this budget and no real goals. No I don’t like Obama, but I didn’t like Bush either so it is not political bias. Just the way I see it. We are too timid, too scared, too coddled, and too lazy to achieve what was once considered a birthright of being an American. I think when the Chinese accomplish what we refuse to do, maybe, just maybe we’ll wake up. Eliminate one cabinet agency, HUD for example, and we could achieve well beyond the politically driven, sad, woefully lacking leadership, NASA budget proposed. Alas, we seem to have many other social rat holes to pour tax dollars down. The difference being the NASA rat hole actually now and then achieves something worthwhile.

  11. Sam

    Leaving the Moon to China (or others) is not a good idea, but I am now sure will happen.

    Having a ‘base’ on the Moon should have been Earth’s first priority in space. Surely, for further space exploration, say Mars etc. far less fuel (of any kind) would have been required for lift off from the Moon to go further and deeper into space. Even for just space observation, the Moon should have been the way to go.

    The space station, while interesting, useful and technically brilliant, is largely seen by the public as ‘fun’; but it is not the way forward, and what is being planned with ‘space tourists’ continues in our eyes as yet more ‘fun’ in space.

    The first and only stepping stone from planet Earth is the Moon, full stop – therefore opportunity lost, or given away at ther eleventh hour. This is more that just sad, it’s a step backwards.

    While the USA offers ‘joyrides in space’, others will be moving forward with the serious stuff. So, the first nation to have a base on the Moon, will be the nation that goes to Mars and beyond.

  12. Dr. Gary J. Linford

    Europeans won’t be surprised by Obama’s terminating our tardy plan to colonize the Moon, potentially the most valuable real estate in the Solar System and our “stepping stone to the stars.” America’s plan for colonizing the Moon took its “first step” 41 years ago after which NASA dropped the ball. Americans aren’t surprised about the lack of vision or comprehension in Washington. Going to the Moon was originally a German idea. Dr.Werner von Braun and his team of scientists guided the construction of the Saturn-V rockets which did all the heavy lifting. We Americans got to watch on TV! We fail to appreciate the Apollo Program’s $ return was without precedent—it spawned the computer age and satellite-related businesses which have generated trillions of $. Apollo found He3 in the lunar soil giving colonists the perfect fusion fuel. He3 is “renewable” from the Solar Wind and with Prometheus technology can generate gigawatts directly from the energy produced when He3 is fused to He4. He3 is only on the Moon, not Earth, not Mars. Those who claim ICF doesn’t work should look up “Tsar Bomba.” China, Japan, and India aren’t asleep at the switch. Should Obama change his mind and try to go to the Moon in 2020, he’s going to have to ask for permission to land!

  13. Mike Robinson

    The NASA budget turns this country into a third world nation as far as space human flight. It will take 10 or more years for the commercial companies to ready vehicles capable of going to the ISS. In the mean time we are outsourcing space travel to Russia. That does not seem like a good idea.

    At the very minimum we should keep the Space Shuttle active until commercial space travel to ISS is possible.

    Why not take money from the military as they waist as much money each day as the Moon program would cost. The Obama administrations direction good as far as expanding some NASA programs but should also include funding for the Moon. We will be lucky if we are third or fourth back to the Moon or Mars.

    The Space Program is why we are the technological leader of the world and now that is gone.

  14. Richard Brown

    One reason why I am opposed to the cancellation of The Constellation program is it will not allow us to develop plans to mine Helium 3 on the moon. There is evidence that this element will produce clean energy and Russia, China and India are all rushing to get back to the moon to mine this element. This will leave our country at a great disadvantage. We need to reconsider this decision since we must find ways to produce clean energy on our world while also reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

  15. Ibrahim

    I am convinced Manned Space Flight and SETI are examples of time and money wasted. Man will never return from Mars. Oh, I think it would eventually be possible to get us there, but returning home alive is out of the question. You cannot take enough water, food and air for such a long journey. I wish Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines would not waste so many pages on these subjects and get on with the study of our universe from earth (and earth-orbiting telescopes).

  16. Howard Sharpe

    It should be noted that by extending the funding for the ISS to 2020 while at the same time terminating the Shuttle and Constellation/Orion programs, the Obama administration will be funding the Russian space program during this time. That is, U.S. tax dollars will be diverted from U.S. jobs and technology to pay the Russians to transport Americans to a mostly American-funded now-completed U.S. space station. The logic escapes me.

  17. Scott

    Despite the remarkable spin being put on this budget, it is, in fact, a step backwards for space exploration. Obama has given NASA more to do less, a remarkable situation when you stop to think about it.

    At this point, NASA is all but a shadow of its former glorious self. Its budget should be slashed to reflect that fact. Instead, it is rewarded for being a massive slush fund for engineers and scientists.

    Very sad.

  18. Poor Guy

    With current propulsion system, human space flight can’t go any farther! What is the point for taking human to just around the moon and mars and cost you billions or trillions of money and months of flight time! Some more the attempt to reach Jupiter with current technologies prove futile and it maybe be a one way trip! Any problem arise during the flight means ==> there goes our astronaut to hell!
    With this new plan by President Obama and its administration,developing new propulsion technology is vital for human space flight to the surrounding solar systam and maybe beyond!
    Imagine you can reach moon in 1/2 a day, mars 4 days and then Jupiter 2 weeks. Furthermore, if the new propulsion system’s flight spending is just a quarter of current cost, then it would be feasible for future space tourism and even colonization.
    Since the near earth orbital space flight can be done with commercial company then let them do it! What is the point for having developed your own space vehicle? It is like u already have DHL services next door, would you going to develop DHL2 again to do the same services?

  19. Ed Case

    The government and destroyed jobs, money and everything else. So no surprise to finish the space program. People have to wake up because there is no two party system. Both parties are against their own people and our country.

  20. Viva Discovery!

    I’ve read in the history books about how NASA wanted to send up at least 3 more Apollo moon landing missions but Nixon nixed (bad pun, ain’t it?) them in the name of budget cuts and yet still had plenty of cashola to fund all those air and sea attacks in Vietnam and Cambodia at a time when American forces were supposed to be out of Indochina.

    Fast forward to 2004. W proposes funding for lunar and Mars missions. I knew he was fibbing, he always did. I read it the paper the following year: some NASA official was peeved to the max. He said that NASA was promised the funding but “where is the damn money?”. Talk is cheap.

    The Constellation program is grossly underfunded so Obama scotched it for now. The media is making look worse than what this article says. I like to see the astronauts’ side of the story here. I do think that the shuttles shouldn’t be laid to rest just yet. Also, more unmanned missions are essential, they provide information for later manned space flights. There is still plenty of leeway for space missions and that creates jobs. We need to “stretch it out” and not be so reckless with some political heat-of-the-moment jive. We need to use our heads.

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