Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Obama's budget reshapes the U.S. space agenda

This artist's rendering shows a proposed commercial space vehicle preparing to connect to the space station. (NASA)
This artist's rendering shows a proposed commercial space vehicle preparing to connect to the space station. (NASA)

With the release of his fiscal year 2011 budget, President Barack Obama dramatically broke with recent space policy -- and in so doing, he broke one of his campaign promises, while keeping five others.

The boldest -- and most controversial -- proposal in Obama's budget is the cancellation of Constellation, the successor system for the space shuttle. Instead, NASA would promote commercial alternatives for carrying the next generation of astronauts into space.

Along with canceling Constellation, Obama offered an alternative road map for human space exploration over the next decade or more -- one that does not include landing astronauts on the moon by 2020. Instead, NASA will send robotic missions "to scout locations and demonstrate technologies to increase the safety and capability of future human missions and provide scientific dividends." The budget avoided specifics about the ultimate target for human missions; the robotic forays would help determine whether landing humans on Mars is a viable goal.

This change of plans clearly breaks Obama's promise to "endorse the goal of sending human missions to the moon by 2020, as a precursor in an orderly progression to missions to more distant destinations, including Mars."

But the president's budget for NASA does keep five other campaign promises. It proposes working with international allies to extend the life of the International Space Station at least through 2020; it supports access to space for private companies; it supports increased investment in research and development related to space; it supports increased spending to prepare for longer space missions; and it establishes school programs to highlight space and science achievements.

Of course, the president's budget is only a proposal, and the forces supporting Constellation are substantial. They include lawmakers from Alabama, Florida and Texas, the states most deeply involved in Constellation. So Obama's major shift in focus is far from a done deal. But we feel that however the appropriations process plays out, the president has lived up to his pledges as he made them.