NASA's New Direction: FAQ
U.S. President Barack Obama, accompanied by members of Congress and middle school children, waves as he talks on the phone from the Roosevelt Room of the White House to astronauts on the International Space Station, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010 in Washington.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Confusion abounds on President Barack Obama's new plan for NASA. Here are some frequently asked questions and their answers:

What does the plan entail?

The new direction for NASA, as proposed by President Obama, was announced as part of the administration's 2011 budget request. Under the plan, NASA would cancel the existing Constellation program, which aimed to build Ares I and Ares V rockets to carry astronauts aboard a spacecraft called Orion back to the moon.

Instead of Constellation, President Obama suggested NASA aim to take humans to an asteroid by 2025 and then on to Mars by the mid-2030s.

The President also proposed extending the International Space Station, which was set to be decommissioned in 2016, through 2020.

To carry astronauts to the station after the space shuttles are retired at the end of 2010 or beginning of 2011, the new proposal would rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft and new private U.S. spaceships yet to be built. Meanwhile, NASA would focus its energies on designing a heavy-lift rocket capable of traveling beyond low-Earth orbit to destinations including an asteroid and Mars.

Is this plan definitely going to happen?

Not necessarily. The proposal must be approved by Congress as part of its overall decision in response to the President's 2011 budget request. Until the request is approved, NASA is restricted under law to outright cancel any part of Constellation without Congressional permission.

Did President Obama cut NASA's funding?

Actually, the new plan calls for $19 billion in funding for NASA in 2011, a slight increase from the $18.3 billion it was allotted in 2010. The President also asked for an extra $6 billion over five years to support commercial spaceships to launch NASA astronauts into space.

Does the new plan cancel the space shuttle?

NASA's fleet of three space shuttles ? Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis ? has been slated to retire this year since as far back as 2004. The decision to retire the shuttles was made following the Columbia accident as part of the Constellation plan, under the administration of George W. Bush.

Is NASA getting out of the human spaceflight business?

A common misconception about the new plan is that President Obama wants NASA to hand off the business of flying people to space to the private sector.

In fact, the new plan aims to hand off the job of flying people to low-Earth orbit to commercial companies. But that would allow NASA to focus on building spaceships to carry humans beyond Earth orbit, to an asteroid, Mars or beyond, the President has said.

Can we eliminate the gap in U.S. human spaceflight ability?

After the shuttles are grounded for good, America will be left with no independent means of transporting humans to space. This gap has been foreseen since the 2004 decision to retire the space shuttles, because the Constellation ships to replace them wouldn't have been ready by 2010 even if that program had been on running schedule.

The Obama administration hopes the gap will be narrowed by the arrival of a private U.S. spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts to orbit. Companies like SpaceX, which recently launched its Falcon 9 rocket on a successful first test flight, and Orbital Sciences, are aiming to fill that need.

In an April 15 speech at Florida's Kennedy Space Center in April, President Obama announced a 2015 deadline for NASA to decide on a rocket design for a heavy-lift vehicle to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to an asteroid, Mars and beyond.

Are any elements of Constellation to be saved?

In his April speech, the President also announced a plan to revive the Orion capsule, an element of the Constellation architecture, to be used as a lifeboat for astronauts to escape the International Space Station in an emergency.

Under the plan, NASA would continue developing Orion, albeit in a stripped-down form from its original conception as a manned craft for launches to and from space. Now Orion won't be designed to lift off with crew onboard, but it could be launched unmanned and dock at the station to transport astronauts back to Earth if needed.

Where did the new plan come from?

In 2009, President Obama appointed an independent panel of experts, including former astronauts and industry leaders, to review NASA's plans. That panel, called the Augustine committee after its chairman Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, found that the Constellation plan would be unable to reach its goals given the agency's current funding levels.

The committee offered several paths to go forward that the new plan borrows heavily from.

Others have seen earlier precursors of the plan in a report issued in 2004 by a team led by Wesley Huntress, a former NASA associate administrator for space science.