The Obama administration did its best Feb. 1 to put the best possible spin on its proposal to cancel the Constellation program designed to return Americans to the moon by 2020, but political opposition was still loud and vociferous.
Released Monday to Congress, Obama's 2011 NASA budget calls for increasing the space agency's budget by $276 million to $19 billion. However, the budget specifically ends funding for manned spaceflight to the moon. NASA has already spent $9 billion to develop a new crew capsule and the Ares I rocket to return to the moon.
By dropping NASA's manned mission to the moon, the Obama administration plans to invest $6 billion over five years to spur commercial low-orbit flights to the ISS (International Space Station) and develop other new space technologies.
"The [Constellation] program was planning to use an approach similar to Apollo to return astronauts to the moon some 50 years after that program's triumphs. The Augustine Committee observed that this path was not sustainable, and the President agrees," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Feb. 1. "They found that Constellation key milestones were slipping, and that the program would not get us back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost. So as much as we would not like it to be the case, and taking nothing away from the hard work and dedication of our team, the truth is that we were not on a path to get back to the moon's surface."
Bolden added, "And as we focused so much of our effort and funding on just getting to the moon, we were neglecting investments in the key technologies that would be required to go beyond."
Bolden said an enhanced U.S. commercial space industry will create new high-tech jobs and spin off other new businesses that will seek to take advantage of affordable access to space.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., where part of the Constellation is being developed, was sharply critical of the decision to cut the Constellation program.
"The president's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight. The cancellation of the Constellation program and the end of human space flight does represent change-but it is certainly not the change I believe in," Shelby said in a statement. "Congress cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record, a steady path to success and the destruction of our human space flight program."
Shelby stressed that the president's budget request was only that, a proposal that must be approved by Congress.
"We cannot continue to coddle the dreams of rocket hobbyists and so-called -commercial' providers who claim the future of U.S. human space flight can be achieved faster and cheaper than Constellation," Shelby said. "Those who believe that it is in our nation's best interest to rely on -commercial' space companies need only examine their current track record. Of the companies enlisted to deliver only cargo to space, not humans, one company failed to move beyond paper drawings, another is years behind schedule, and a replacement company for the first failure will not even be ready for test flights for years to come."
The long-awaited decision by the White House on the future of U.S. manned spaceflight comes after Obama announced May 5, 2009, an outside review of NASA's program to return to the moon, which former President Bush ordered in the aftermath of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.
The blue ribbon panel of experts, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, conducted its review over the summer and concluded the U.S. manned space program is chronically underfunded with unrealistic goals. NASA has already spent almost $7 billion on the plan to return to the moon and continues to spend approximately $300 million on the program.
"The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do match allocated resources," the panel said. "Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a former astronaut, said he was disappointed over what he was hearing.
"Based on initial reports about the administration's plan for NASA, they are 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," Nelson said in a statement. "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. We need a plan that provides America with uninterrupted access to space while also funding exploration to expand the boundaries of our knowledge."