NASA’s Constellation program – based largely on existing technologies – was based on a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies. Using a broad range of criteria an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives. Furthermore, NASA’s attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations. The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration...
So, wait... does that mean we just lost the return to the Moon?
The short answer is, no. This will delay our return to the Moon somewhat, but with continued reading the statement does outline how NASA's plans for a return to the Moon and beyond will be restructured to concentrate on investing in newer technologies that will see us return on a more solid footing, moving even farther away from the simple flags and footprints approach that marred the space race fuelled landings of the 20th century.
The Orion capsule, scrapped with Constellation
Just remember that the old phrase "this isn't rocket science" doesn't apply here - this actually IS rocket science! It is extremely difficult stuff we are talking about. Getting to the Moon and beyond is well within our capabilities, but it is not something that can be achieved with the piffling budgets that are almost thrown to NASA like a bone. In contrast to the old school approach of a race to do this big important thing, ventures of this scale need to be undertaken under the same spirit of international co-operation that has resulted in the incredible human achievement, the International Space Station. The best brains of the human race are required to do this, not just the cream of the crop of a single country.
The involvement of private enterprise is also going to play an increased role as new plans emerge. Companies like SpaceX, a private launch system that is set to begin flights to the ISS within two years, will bring a paradigm shift in space exploration that is fuelled not by the need to be the first, but by the potential enterprise of the venture. Unlike healthcare, space exploration is a good fit for a for-profit industry. As long as the business model is structured correctly, with regulation and oversight paramount, then the addition of the private sector to the fold would be a welcome one.
So, won't it compromise safety to have corporate space exploration?
Well, it could just as easily be argued that NASA space exploration has a compromised safety record. The Apollo and Shuttle deaths are not insignificant, so the safety record of a bona fide government run space agency is already losing out to the untested private sector. NASA helped pioneer a lot of the safety innovations, and would likely do very well as a standards enforcer rather than a primary explorer. If it ends up that NASA becomes a space safety police, that isn't such a strange idea as it sounds.
As usual though, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I was excited about the prospect of a whole new exploration platform, and despite the negative press surrounding the recent Ares IX test launch I was genuinely enjoying watching the process unfold - something I haven't done since the Shuttle was being developed. On the other hand it was a bit like reinventing the wheel - and a very expensive wheel at that. After 40 years of being post-Moon space faring we have done little other than fly around the Earth in a cool looking spaceship that can land like an aircraft, but it can't go much farther. Constellation promised to break us out of that rut, but surely we can do better. Today there are many more launch options than back when we were pioneers, and it would certainly be sensible, fiscally prudent, and even a wise move to mature something like the very successful Atlas launcher into a full-blown exploration platform.
Love him or hate him (yeah, some people actually 'hate' him), President Obama is an intelligent and smart advocate of science and progress, and I have every confidence that he has the best interests of the future of the manned space program at heart. Spacers will be keeping a close eye on how this story develops in the coming months.
Image credit: Lockheed Martin Corp.