The Obama administration has axed NASA plans to return to the moon by 2020. The president's 2011 budget, to be released Feb. 1, includes no funding for the Constellation program, the controversial Bush-era plan to establish a lunar outpost for future space exploration.
Instead, the administration proposes to keep NASA focused on extending the life of the International Space Station through 2020. The plan also keeps in place the mothballing of the aging space shuttle fleet at the end of 2010. For the immediate future, NASA will outsource the future ferrying of astronauts to the ISS to the Russians.
The 2011 budget also calls for funding to help private companies build spacecraft to aid in transportation to the ISS. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden plans a series of news conferences the week of Feb. 1 to explain the new direction of the space agency.
The long-awaited decision by the White House on the future of U.S. manned spaceflight comes after Obama announced on May 5 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 that 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."
Under Obama's budget, NASA will receive an additional $5.9 billion over the next five years. In the interim, NASA is expected to develop new plans for manned space flight.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a former astronaut, said he was disappointed by 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."