NASA's Far-Out New Plans
Hang Time: in Earth orbit courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace expandable modules. The company unveiled a business plan to populate space with habitable complexes for international space agencies and multinational corporations.
Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

By all accounts, President Barack Obama's new proposal for NASA's future is a game-changer.

The plan calls for abandoning the status quo ? including the Constellation plan to rocket humans back to the moon ? and investing instead in innovative new projects. Here are some of the far-out ideas that could come to pass under the new NASA plan:

Faster space propulsion

Obama proposed devoting some of NASA's budget toward developing new spaceflight technologies, including innovative methods of space propulsion. The plans specifically call for building faster ways of moving through space so that future manned trips might not take as long, require as many resources, or expose astronauts to so much space radiation.

"Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of firsts," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said Monday in a briefing on the new plans.

Commercial spaceships

One of the most striking shifts in the proposed vision is to abandon NASA's current attempts to build a new vehicle to carry humans into space, and instead encourage private companies to develop this technology. NASA would then rely on commercial spaceships to ferry astronauts to the space station and low-Earth orbit.

"Because it's companies doing these things and they're competing against each other, the competition and fixed prices of contracts are going to drive a much higher level of efficiency and innovation than would have happened if the government just plodded along on its own," said Cornell University planetary scientist Jim Bell, president of the non-profit Planetary Society, a space-interest organization.

Two companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in California and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia, currently have contracts worth a combined $3.5 billion to provide unmanned cargo shipments to the International Space Station for NASA.

Space tourism and colonization

One of the possible consequences of new commercial space vehicles and new propulsion mechanisms is the chance that human civilians could travel to space in large numbers for the first time. That means that space vacations and moon hotels may not be a mere pipe dream anymore.

"I am excited to think that the development of commercial capabilities to send humans into low earth orbit will likely result in so many more earthlings being able to experience the transformative power of spaceflight," Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin said in a statement.

In his comments, Bolden echoed this sentiment.

"Imagine enabling hundreds, even thousands of people to visit or live in low-Earth orbit, while NASA firmly focuses its gaze on the cosmic horizon beyond Earth," he said.

Space gas stations

Orbital fuel depots are also set to be investigated in the new vision. Such supply stations would allow spacecraft to launch to low-Earth orbit, then rendezvous with a fuel container and load up on the extra juice they need to travel further.

Space gas stations could prove pivotal to manned trips to Mars or beyond, because reloading once in space would allow spacecraft to take on much more fuel than if they were forced to launch from Earth with all the propellant they needed.

Inflatable space houses

Another new technology mentioned in the plans for NASA is inflatable space modules. Inflatable habitats are very appealing because they would be very light to launch, but could potentially provide a flexible and useful framework for building rooms, both in orbit and on the moon or other planets.

Now that the lifetime of the International Space Station has been extended to 2020, the orbiting laboratory could possibly grow beyond current plans. It's not out of the question that new types of space modules, including inflatable rooms, could be added to the station before its tenure is up.

One company, the Las Vegas, Nev.-based firm Bigelow Aerospace, has already launched two inflatable space station module prototypes into orbit. They?re still up there today.

Green aviation

The new vision also calls for NASA to invest in developing more environmentally friendly modes of air and space travel. The budget proposal allocates $20 million per year for NASA's green aviation program. Research programs will focus on reducing aircraft fuel needs, noise and carbon emissions.

"These investments will enable safer and cleaner air travel in the future," NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said Monday.