President Barack Obama is essentially grounding efforts to return astronauts to the moon and instead is sending NASA in new directions with roughly $6 billion more, according to officials familiar with the plans.
A White House official confirmed Thursday that when next week’s budget is proposed, NASA will get an additional $5.9 billion over five years, as first reported in Florida newspapers.
Some of that money would extend the life of the International Space Station to 2020. It also would be used to entice companies to build private spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the space station after the space shuttle retires, said the official, who was not authorized to speak by name.
The money in the president’s budget is not enough to follow through with NASA’s Constellation moon landing plan initiated by President George W. Bush in 2004. An aide to an elected official who was told of Obama’s plans said the president is effectively ending the return-to-the-moon effort, even though $9.1 billion has already been spent. The aide asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
It all comes down to money. When NASA costed out the moon plan in 2005, the agency came up with a total price tag of $104 billion. The plan quickly spluttered when the budget increases promised by the White House didn't materialize. Now money is a big consideration in NASA's latest shift in focus.
A new direction for NASA has been on hold for several months while an independent commission studied options and the White House weighed them. Obama’s choice will be made clear Monday when he releases his 2011 budget proposal.
“It certainly appears that the Bush moon mission is not going to be included” in future funding, said a senior NASA official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the plans.
‘Exploration is not dead’
Space policy scholar John Logsdon, who was on an Obama space campaign advisory committee and has served on NASA advisory panels, said the president is adopting the preferred option of a White House-appointed outside panel of experts last year. That concept includes reliance on commercial spaceships, a space station that functions for five more years than initially planned, and a “flexible path” for human space exploration.
The flexible-path option might mean trips to a nearby asteroid, a Martian moon or even lunar orbit. But it would not allow for a human moon landing by 2020, or for the construction of a moon base sometime afterward, as called for in the Bush plan. The development of landing systems and lunar settlements would have to be put off until later.
“What kills the moon mission is the decision to extend the space station to 2020,” Logsdon said. That means the Bush goal of “moon by 2020 is dead. We can’t afford using the station for five more years and going to the moon.”
While the Constellation program “is dead, exploration is not dead, and that’s really important,” Logsdon said.
Strong negative reaction
The budget numbers were first reported this week by The Orlando Sentinel and Florida Today. Already, proponents of the moon mission and thousands of workers in space centers in Florida, Alabama and Texas are upset. Congressional officials in those states have denounced such ideas, and some of them sit on key committees where they could fight Obama’s plans.
For example, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who went into orbit in 1986 on the space shuttle mission immediately preceding before the Challenger explosion, chairs the space subcommittee in the Senate. The chairwoman of the House space subcommittee, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., is married to a space shuttle astronaut.
Nelson's reaction to the reports circulating about future NASA spending was sharply negative. In a statement issued Thursday, he said administration officials would be "replacing lost shuttle jobs in Florida too slowly, risking U.S. leadership in space to China and Russia, and relying too heavily on unproven commercial companies."
“If the $6 billion in extra funding is for a commercial rocket, then the bigger rocket for human exploration will be delayed well into the next decade. That is unacceptable," Nelson said. “We need a plan that provides America with uninterrupted access to space while also funding exploration to expand the boundaries of our knowledge.”
In a statement, Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla., said, “The president’s proposal would leave NASA with essentially no program and no timeline for exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.”
Ken Matthews, a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Huntsville, Ala., said his members worry about “jobs that won’t be there.”
If Obama does cancel the Constellation program, it “leaves NASA and the nation with no program, no plan and no commitment to any human spaceflight program beyond that of today,” former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a statement.
Griffin said this would be tantamount to recommending “that the nation abandon its leadership on the space frontier.”
Questions about private ventures
Kosmas and others raised questions about the safety of switching to a privately run space travel system that NASA would pay to carry astronauts.
The companies working to develop such a system include Space Exploration Technology Corp. or SpaceX, run by PayPal founder Elon Musk. California-based SpaceX is already building a new crew capsule and rocket, known as the Dragon and the Falcon 9, for transporting crew and cargo to orbit. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, is building the Cygnus and the Taurus 2 rocket to serve the same purpose.
SpaceX and Orbital already are receiving millions of dollars from NASA to encourage the development of their spaceships. Other companies, ranging from Boeing to Virgin Galactic, have set their sights on selling spaceflight services to NASA.
A recent report by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned NASA not pursue unproven technology and abandon the Ares I rocket — the first rocket in the Bush moon program and one based on the Apollo design. The report called such a path “unwise and probably not cost-effective.”
But the Obama administration official said the Bush program was so underfunded that it wouldn’t get astronauts to the moon until 2028 or 2030.
The Bush moon plan was announced after the 2003 Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts. After that disaster, in which the shuttle broke apart as it returned to Earth, a special investigative panel said NASA needed a new goal. In January 2004, Bush proposed the return to the moon. It would have involved the Ares I rocket, carrying astronauts in a capsule called Orion. Another Ares spacecraft would carry heavier cargo.
So far NASA has spent $3.5 billion on Ares I, $3.7 billion on Orion and nearly $2 billion on other moon mission work. In the mid-1990s, NASA went through a similar stutter-step that meant abandoning plans that cost billions. That involved President Ronald Reagan’s Freedom space station, which ran into trouble after costing $11 billion without building any hardware. President Bill Clinton had the space station redesigned and restarted, with Russia and other nations joining in the effort.
Associated Press writer Jay Reeves contributed from Birmingham, Ala. This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.