We’ve lost the Moon. But have we gained the solar system while boosting commercial space ventures? “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,” states the Office of Management and Budget’s Fact Sheet on NASA’s 2011 budget. NASA will get additional $6 billion over the next five years tacked on to the current budget of just under $18 billion. The budget information released so far does not provide for a specific destination for humans in space. So, while some see this new direction as a course correction; others see it as an endgame. With an extension to the International Space Station to 2020, humans may well be stuck in low Earth orbit for at least another decade.
In this budget, the Ares rocket is history, and while no decision has been made on a heavy lift vehicle – necessary to launch humans beyond low-Earth orbit – NASA has been directed to continue research on such a vehicle that will “increase the capability of future exploration architectures with significantly lower operations costs than current systems – potentially taking us farther and faster into space.”
But in this proposed budget, which must be approved by Congress, NASA will provide funds for commercial space companies to build vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. With the space shuttle program ending this year, NASA had agreed to pay Russia $50 million a seat. Commercial space companies could likely provide the seats for less money, but their vehicles are not yet human rated or tested.
It is true that the Constellation program was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies.” But $9 billion has already been spent on developing the Ares rockets and the Orion crew capsule, and $2.5 billion is in the budget proposal to close out Constellation.
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Proponents of Obama’s budget proposal say moving towards using private commercial space companies will create more jobs per dollar because the government’s investment would be leveraged by millions of dollars in private investments.
“NASA investment in the commercial spaceflight industry is a win-win decision,” said Bret Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement released last week. “Commercial crew will create thousands of high-tech jobs in the United States, especially in Florida, while reducing the spaceflight gap and preventing us from sending billions to Russia.’
NASA already has contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to bring cargo to the station, and . SpaceX is also developing vehicles to bring astronauts to orbit and back.
Already, some say they will fight this budget. “I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for NASA, and for the thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs,” said Senator Bill Nelson last week, as rumors were flying and details about the budget were leaking out.
With the US facing a federal deficit of $1.26 trillion in 2011, Obama federal budget proposal puts a three-year freeze on most non-defense discretionary spending after 2011, which the president believes will save $250 billion over the next 10 years. So, giving NASA the $6 billion over the next five year is a way to circumvent that freeze for NASA.
The budget proposal also includes:
$183 million to extend operations of the ISS past its previously planned retirement date of 2016. NASA will deploy new research facilities to conduct scientific research and test technologies in space. New capabilities could include a centrifuge to support research into human physiology, inflatable space habitats, and a program to continuously upgrade Space Station capabilities.
$600 million to complete the final five shuttle missions, allowing for a safe and orderly retirement of the Space Shuttle program even if its schedule slips into Fiscal Year 2011.
$1.2 billion for transformative research in exploration technology that will involve NASA, private industry, and academia, sparking spin-off technologies and potentially entire new industries.
$150 million to accelerate the development of new satellites for Earth Science priorities.
$170 million to develop and fly a replacement of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a mission to identify global carbon sources and sinks that was lost when its launch vehicle failed in 2009.
$500 million to contract with industry to provide astronaut transportation to the ISS, reducing the sole reliance on foreign crew transports and catalyzing new businesses and significant new jobs.
Increases Scientific Understanding of the Solar System and Universe
$3.2 billion for science research grants and dozens of missions and telescopes studying the planets and stars – including new missions such as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, missions to study the Moon, and two Mars exploration missions.
$14 million ($420 million over five years) for a mission to the Sun, flying through its outer atmosphere to better understand how it is heated and how it ejects the stream of charged particles known as the solar wind.
Increase funding to detect asteroids that could potentially pose a hazard to the Earth.
Increase annually the percentage of NASA higher education program student participants employed by NASA, aerospace contractors, universities, and other educational institutions.
For more details see this pdf from the OMB, or this OMB fact sheet.