President Obama to Propose Abandoning NASA's Moon Plan
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, speaks at the 215th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

CAPE CANAVERAL ? President Barack Obama will ask Congress to extend International Space Station operations through at least 2020 but abandon NASA's current plans to return U.S. astronauts to the moon, administration and NASA officials said Wednesday.

The president's 2011 budget request, due to be delivered to Congress on Monday, will direct NASA to invest in the development of U.S. commercial space taxi services to ferry American astronauts to and from the station.

The move is meant to reduce reliance on Russian crew transportation services after the retirement of America's aging shuttle fleet.

The administration will provide for a safe fly-out of five remaining shuttle missions ? even if the final flights slip into 2011. But an option to extend shuttle operations through 2015 is being cast aside, officials said. Obama's aim is to turn NASA once again into "an engine for innovation," one that will spur the development of commercial industry in low Earth orbit.

The focus will be on developing technologies that would enable sustainable human expeditions beyond Earth orbit. But those journeys are not likely to take place before the early 2020s.

Despite a fiscal freeze on most discretionary programs, NASA's budget will be increased by $6 billion over the next five years for a total of $100 billion.

"Budgets are very tight," said former astronaut Sally Ride, who served on a presidential panel that determined NASA's current Project Constellation ? the post-shuttle program ? is on "an unsustainable trajectory."

"For NASA to be getting new money over the projections is to me an indication of how seriously this administration takes NASA and our goal of future innovations for this country."

The administration hopes to create 1,700 jobs in Florida and 5,000 jobs nationwide, helping to offset an anticipated loss of 7,000 jobs at Kennedy Space Center after the shuttle program's shutdown.

But some in Congress are not happy.

"My biggest fear is that this amounts to a slow death of our nation's human spaceflight program, a retreat from America's decades of leadership in space, ending the economic advantages that our space program has brought to the U.S. and ceding space to the Russians, Chinese and others," said U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge.

"Until we have a clearer plan for the future, the only realistic and reasonable way to preserve America's leadership in space is to provide for a temporary extension of the shuttle," he said.

NASA since 2004 has invested $9 billion in developing the Constellation program's Ares I and Ares V rockets and the Apollo-style Orion crew capsule for missions to the moon, Mars and, in the event no commercial means becomes available, the International Space Station.

The agency also planned to develop a rocket stage to propel astronauts from low Earth to lunar orbit, and a lunar lander dubbed Altair.

The idea was to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020. But the presidential panel convened by Obama to review NASA's plans determined that a human lunar return was unlikely before 2028.

The panel favored the development of commercial crew transportation services, a move that would be a radical shift in national space policy. NASA since the late 1950s has developed rockets and spacecraft flown by U.S. astronauts.

"We really do believe it is time for American companies to come into this program in a way that they have on the cargo side for decades now," a senior NASA official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"This is a serious, serious effort that we believe will reduce the gap" between shuttle retirement and the first flights of successor craft, the official said.

So, what does all this mean for KSC? Here are some of the implications:

  • Commercial crew taxi services: One of the two companies now under NASA contract to launch cargo to the International Space Station -- SpaceX -- will be operating at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

    A competition presumably would be held to select a company to provide commercial crew transportation services, and it's almost certain that KSC and Cape Canaveral would be among the launch sites considered.

    Senior administration officials said the commercial launch services ? both cargo and crew ? are expected to result in more new jobs and a higher launch rate on the Space Coast.

    A higher launch rate would be good for business throughout Brevard County (which includes the Kennedy Space Center), particularly in the tourist industry.

  • Extending space station operations through 2020: NASA officials, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, and others aim to secure payload processing business for extended station operations.

    Scientific experiments and cargo all must be prepped for launch, and it makes sense to locate that business near the launch site.

  • No moon missions: The Obama administration aims to ramp up NASA's technology development programs, which have atrophied over the last several years, and make "strategic investments" at KSC, according to a senior administration space policy adviser.

The idea is to turn KSC into a "launch complex of the future," making it increasingly attractive to commercial space launch companies, the adviser said.

Technology development efforts, some of which might focus on building heavy-lift launch vehicles, would be conducted at KSC along with other endeavors that would enable eventual human expeditions beyond Earth orbit.

Obama's space plan will be a hard sell in Congress. Even ardent Obama supporters and some key space advisers are taken aback.

"If some of the reports about the president's plans for NASA's budget are correct, it would decimate the space program," a Nelson spokesman said.

NASA's planned return to the moon is behind schedule because about $12 billion budgeted for the project was not appropriated by Congress during the past six years.

But Project Constellation enjoys strong bipartisan support in both the U.S. House and the Senate, and Congress will have a big say in the plan for NASA.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee passed legislation in December that requires broader congressional approval to change NASA's existing exploration program.

"I think that's the intent of the language," said U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach. "It does give us hopefully some ability to weigh in."

Posey said, "This issue is far from over."

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