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Moonset: NASA Top Brass Outline Agency's Plans under Obama's Controversial Budget

The president's budget request for fiscal year 2011, not yet approved by Congress, would bring sweeping changes to the space agency
Charles Bolden and Lori Garver



NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA leaders revealed April 8 the framework of their plans to enact President Obama's budget request for 2011, a contentious proposal that would redirect the agency's current efforts away from a moon landing in the next decade and that would rely on commercial partners to launch astronauts into orbit. In a teleconference with reporters NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver described how future funds and projects would be allocated among the agency's many centers across the country, assuming that Obama's budget wins congressional approval.

The space shuttle program has just three launches before the orbiters are retired later this year or early in 2011, and Obama has proposed scrapping the shuttle program's successor, known as Constellation, which was first sketched out by President George W. Bush in 2004. The Constellation Program had aimed to return astronauts to Earth orbit by 2015 and to the moon's surface by 2020, although independent assessments questioned the feasibility of that timeline.

Obama and NASA have not proposed a new destination or timeline to replace those of Constellation, although Bolden said that the ultimate goal of exploration remains the same: a manned mission to Mars. Garver hinted that the agency is thinking long-term with its new direction, saying that part of NASA's charge is "inspiring our children and our future leaders to dream big and start on the dreams that it may require generations to achieve."

Obama's plan has met with vocal resistance in Congress, and it is possible that the budget ultimately signed into law will feature significant changes, but Bolden made it clear that NASA is moving ahead with its implementation strategy. "I can say that in terms of NASA planning, Constellation as a program is dead," Bolden said. At the same time, he added that the agency is looking at Constellation to identify "nuggets" that could find use in ongoing programs.

In support of the Obama budget, Garver announced that the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA's longtime launch point for manned space missions, would host a commercial crew development office, funded by $5.8 billion over five years, to stimulate the private enterprises that would eventually launch U.S. astronauts to orbit in the absence of Constellation rockets. Kennedy would also receive $429 million in 2011, and $1.9 billion over five years, to upgrade and modernize the launch facilities there.

Under Constellation, NASA would have had two rockets for manned missions: a crew launcher called Ares 1 and a heavy-lift cargo rocket called Ares 5. In Obama's budget the private sector would fill the void left by the cancellation of Ares 1, and a heavy-lift research and development program at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., would provide similar cover for the scrapped Ares 5. That program would receive $3.1 billion over five years, Bolden said.

With the shuttle's retirement, and no replacement on the horizon, the space industry stands to lose thousands of jobs as NASA transitions to a new way of doing business. "A very serious and real concern for everyone is the jobs," Bolden said, adding that retaining the entire shuttle workforce was never part of the plan, even for Constellation. But Bolden said that Obama believes in the importance of space exploration and will travel to Florida next week to speak with members of the space community and make his position clear.

Although much of the attention Obama's budget has received focuses on plans for deep-space missions, NASA is involved with many programs closer to home. Garver said that Obama is giving NASA another shot at the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, an Earth-observing satellite designed to measure and track carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that failed to reach orbit in 2009.

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