(Sen) - Today President Obama set out his federal budget which, if approved by Congress, will result in the cancellation of NASA's Constellation programme designed to take man back to the moon and beyond.
"It's time to save what we can, spend what we must and live within our means once again" said President Obama. In seeking to stimulate the economy and jobs whilst reducing government debt, NASA's Constellation programme came under fire for being behind schedule and over budget. The Constellation programme was to replace the retiring space shuttle with a return to a rocket launch vehicle that could take astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars. The Ares 1-X rocket had completed its first un-manned test flight in October 2009 but overall the programme was behind schedule.
The White House Budget Office stated that "Using a broad range of criteria, an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA's program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives.... Furthermore, NASA's attempts to pursue its moon goals, while inadequate to that task, had drawn funding away from other NASA programs, including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations."
However, whilst the budget - if approved by Congress - will put an end to NASA's Constellation programme, overall NASA's funding will increase by US$6 billion over the next five years to a total of US$100 billion between 2011 and 2015.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden released NASA's plans for the next five years, emphasising that federal funding of NASA actually increases over the next few years and suggesting that abandoning the "over-budget" Constellation programme would result in NASA re-focusing its efforts in other key technologies that could take man beyond the moon. "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;" and imagine this all being done collaboratively with nations around the world. That is what the president's plan for NASA will enable, once we develop the new capabilities to make it a reality," Bolden said.
Bolden outlined the key aspects of NASA's spending over the next few years. The plans include robotic missions to the moon and Mars to scout targets for future human activities and identify hazards and resources that will determine the future course of the expansion of human civilisation into space. NASA are also budgeting to continue investment in the International Space Station (ISS) to ensure its continued operation and development to 2020.
NASA's budget also proposes $6 billion "to spur the development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles. Mr Bolden explained "NASA will accelerate and enhance its support for the commercial spaceflight industry to make travel to low Earth orbit and beyond more accessible and more affordable. 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."
NASA also propose to allocat budget to space game changing technologies that make NASA. other government and "commercial space activities" more capable and affordable.
The two important aspects of today's NASA announcement are the references to "collaboration with other nations" and commercial spaceflights and activities. The collaboration with other nations will include the NASA / ESA project for Mars exploration. The references to international co-operation and private enterprise hint at the likely shape of things to come with international co-operation to be encouraged and private commercial space operations becoming increasingly involved in mankind's exploration of space. The guiding principle of international space law, set out in the UN Declaration in 1963, that "the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on for the benefit and in the interests of all mankind" must provide the touchstone for these future activities.