Obama budget would boost space exploration
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said his administration would "support increased investment in research, data analysis and technology development across the full suite of exploration missions including the Mars Sample Return mission and future missions to the moon, asteroids, Lagrange points, the outer solar system and other destinations."
Obama's budget proposes canceling Constellation, the successor system for the space shuttle, and jettisoning the idea of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020. Instead, NASA would allocate billions of dollars to "commercial crew" programs and the development of new technologies, as well as $3 billion over five years to pursue robotic missions "to scout locations and demonstrate technologies to increase the safety and capability of future human missions and provide scientific dividends."
The budget avoids specifics about the ultimate target for human missions; the robotic forays would help determine whether landing humans on Mars is a viable goal. However, the stated possibilities include the moon, Mars, the moons of Mars, Lagrange points (points in space of special scientific interest) and nearby asteroids.
In all, the president's budget would increase budget authority for NASA's exploration directorate from about $3.8 billion in fiscal year 2010 to about $5.2 billion in fiscal year 2015. That works out to an average annual increase of 7 percent -- well above the expected rate of inflation.
As with all elements of the president's budget, nothing is final until Congress passes the relevant appropriations bills and the president signs them. In the case of exploration missions, securing the degree of investment the president wants depends in part on his administration's ability to wring savings from its proposed cancellation of Constellation, whose defenders in Congress could pose an obstacle to the president's broader space agenda. (Some of the money would come from a less controversial source, the end of the space shuttle program.)
That said, the president has not only stated a commitment to further space exploration but has proposed funding levels that outpace inflation. In our view, he has lived up to his promise to "support" such a course. Even though Congress has not yet acted to implement it, we are moving this promise from Stalled to Promise Kept.
Office of Management and Budget, NASA fact sheet from the president's fiscal year 2011 budget proposal, Feb. 1, 2010
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Estimates, Feb. 1, 2010
E-mail interview with Marcia Smith of spacepolicyonline.com, Feb. 2, 2010
E-mail interview with Edward Ellegood, space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Feb. 12, 2010
Administration still deciding whether to pursue longer space missions
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "support increased investment in research, data analysis, and technology development across the full suite of exploration missions including the Mars Sample Return mission and future missions to the moon, asteroids, Lagrange points, the outer solar system and other destinations."
The U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee has spent considerable time discussing this issue and has offered some options. The panel -- more commonly known as the Augustine Committee, after its chairman, Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin -- urged one of two approaches — "moon first" and "flexible path."
Under "moon first," NASA would use experience operating on the moon's surface as preparation for the goal of exploring Mars later on. Through multiple missions, astronauts could build a base and live there for months in preparation for a trip to Mars, doing things like prospecting for fuel and conducting scientific work.
Under "flexible path," NASA would visit a wider variety of destinations, including lunar orbit, asteroids and the moons of Mars, followed, perhaps, by exploration of the surface of Mars. The missions would get longer and longer, providing experience in the long transit times required of a trip to Mars.
"The committee finds that both 'moon first' and 'flexible path' are viable exploration strategies," the panel wrote. "It also finds that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive; before traveling to Mars, we might be well served to both extend our presence in free space and gain experience working on the lunar surface."
As for the details of following either approach, the panel offered a number of options, but it said that the only viable ones would require more money than currently envisioned in NASA's budget. Specifically, the panel's proposed budget would phase in increases for NASA — up to $3 billion above the budget that is currently envisioned for fiscal year 2014 — and then expand spending by 2.4 percent per year thereafter.
The administration is now weighing its decision on the future course of space missions. The administration's course should become clear no later than February, when it releases its fiscal year 2011 budget request.
But for now, we're still in the dark on the administration's priorities. So we'll rate this promise Stalled.
U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation" ( final report of the Augustine Commission), October 2009
E-mail interview with Edward Ellegood, space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Dec. 3, 2009.
E-mail interview with Marcia Smith of spacepolicyonline.com, Dec. 3, 2009.