During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "expedite the development” of the successor to the space shuttle, which ended its final mission on July 21, 2011.
First, some background on the shuttle, which first orbited the Earth in 1981. In 2004, the Bush administration decided to wind down the shuttle program so that the funding could be redirected to a program known as Constellation that would return humans to the moon by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars. That program included building a spacecraft and launch vehicle that could not only send astronauts to the moon but also take them to and from the International Space Station. Obama shelved the Constellation program in 2010, however, and instead proposed relying on private-sector companies to fill the shuttle's role in ferrying cargo and crew to the space station.
With the end of the shuttle program, the United States is now dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. This is the first time since a six-year gap between 1975 and 1981 that the U.S. has not been able to send astronauts into space on its own. That will remain the case until private companies step in.
One major achievement came in May 2012, when SpaceX's Dragon capsule completed a cargo test mission to the International Space Station, berthing with the station and then returning safely to earth, splashing down with a return load of cargo in the Pacific Ocean. That version of the Dragon spacecraft cannot carry people, but SpaceX plans to build a version that can. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk told reporters earlier this year that human missions on Dragon might be feasible as soon as 2015.
Several other companies beyond SpaceX are competing for a chance to ferry astronauts into space. Under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program (CCiCap), NASA will soon choose up to three of these companies to proceed to the next stage of the competition. Two companies would receive full funding and one would get partial funding.
Regardless of the companies' projections, budgetary restraints have forced NASA to push back the expected shift to private-sector human transport from 2015 to 2017. Congress gave NASA $406 million for commercial spaceflght in fiscal year 2012, far less than the $850 million requested by the president. Further shortfalls below what NASA needs to accelerate the transition are expected as deficit reduction remains a top concern.
Any delay beyond 2017 would push up against the current deadline for the end of the International Space Station. Operations on the station are currently scheduled to phase out in 2020, although if the collaborating nations agree, the station could have its life extended beyond that.
The Obama administration has pushed forward with the commercial cargo portion of space shuttle replacement, even adding an additional $350 million. But while the human-flight aspect of shuttle replacement is proceeding with the private-sector companies, the timeline for human flight has slipped under the Obama administration. Under the Bush administration, the target date for U.S. astronauts to fly into space on U.S. rockets and spacecraft was 2014. That is now 2015 at the earliest or, more likely, 2017. The administration has achieved some success in expediting cargo transport but has presided over a delay in human transport. So we rate this promise a Compromise.