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.
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."
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.