Who thinks this was a good idea? And why? Who thinks otherwise and why?
Mr. Obama’s 2010 budget proposal for NASA asks for $ 18 billion over five years for fueling spacecraft in orbit, new types of engines to accelerate spacecraft through space and robotic factories that could churn soil on the Moon — and eventually Mars — into rocket fuel.
Plans for a new mission to leave Earth’s orbit will probably not be spelled out for a few years, and the budget proposal makes it clear that any future exploration program will be an international collaboration, not an American one, more like the International Space Station than Apollo.
“I think this is a dramatic shift in the way we’ve gone about particularly human spaceflight over the past almost 50 years,” said John M. Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University who was one of about a dozen people who were briefed about the NASA proposal Sunday evening.
“It is a somewhat risky proposition,” Dr. Logsdon said, “but we’ve been kind of stuck using the technologies we’ve developed in the ’50s and ’60s.”
To pay for the new technology development, the budget calls for a complete stop in NASA’s Constellation program, the rockets and spacecraft that NASA has been working on for the past four years to replace the space shuttles.
“We are proposing canceling the program, not delaying it,” Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said Sunday.
The proposal would officially end aspirations to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 — President George W. Bush’s “vision for space exploration” developed in the aftermath of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.
In place of the Moon mission, Mr. Obama’s vision offers, at least initially, nothing in terms of human exploration of the solar system. What the administration calls a “bold new initiative” does not spell out a next destination or timetable for getting there.
In the meantime, instead of using the Constellation’s Ares I rocket and Orion crew capsule to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, $ 6 billion would instead go to financing space taxi services from commercial companies.
Under the proposal, NASA’s budget would rise to $ 19 billion in the 2011 fiscal year from $ 18.7 billion. It would also get additional increases in subsequent years, reaching $ 21 billion in 2015. In total, NASA would receive $ 100 billion over the next five years.
Whether Congress agrees to the restructuring of NASA remains to be seen. As reports of the impending cancellation of Constellation leaked out last week, members of Congress, particularly in Alabama, Florida and Texas, the homes of the NASA centers most involved with Constellation, expressed concern.
“If early reports for what the White House wants to do with NASA are correct, then the president’s green-eyeshade-wearing advisers are dead wrong,” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said in a statement last week.
Congress may also balk at the price tag. After spending $ 9 billion over the past four years on Constellation, canceling the contracts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Alliant Techsystems and other companies will cost an additional $ 2.5 billion, Dr. Logsdon said NASA officials had told him.
If implemented, the NASA a few years from now would be fundamentally different from NASA today. The space agency would no longer operate its own spacecraft, but essentially buy tickets for its astronauts.
Dr. Logsdon said the officials said NASA would evolve into a role more akin to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which preceded NASA. The committee did not manufacturer aircraft, but performed aeronautical research that was adopted by aircraft manufacturers.
“The assumption is that there are technological breakthroughs out there ready to be discovered and exploited,” Dr. Logsdon said. “I’m impressed and a little surprised how large the investment in new technology is planned to be. It does represent a shift away from developing systems to developing technologies before developing systems.”
If the approach succeeds, it could jumpstart a vibrant space industry, but it is also risky. By canceling Ares I, NASA would have no backup if the commercial companies were not able to deliver.
One likely competitor for the commercial crew contract is Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX for short. But its Falcon 9 rocket, the one that would be used to carry astronauts to the space station, has yet to have its first launching. When SpaceX, a startup led by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, won in 2006 a contract to carry cargo to the space station, the company said it would have six flights of the Falcon 9 by the end of 2009.
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