Just the other day, an influential group of ex-astronauts—including Buzz Aldrin—publicly called for a new direction in the U.S. space effort, demanding more human space flight and even a Department of Space. And it's just possible those demands will fall on understanding ears in the Obama administration, since it looks like the newly revealed budget is particularly pro-space exploration.
Buried in the huge plan is a continuation of the space plans drawn up by the Bush administration—a realignment of NASA's mission that requires retiring the Space Shuttle by next year, and landing people on the moon by 2020. These lofty goals were not without controversy—retiring the Shuttle leaves a tricky capability gap that needs to be imaginatively filled—but resulted in the Constellation project.
Constellation will take ideas from the Apollo program, mix in Ares rocket technology derived from the Shuttle program, and propel large six-man Orion capsules to the Moon.
Under Obama's plans, NASA will also actually get an increased budget: $18.7 billion in 2010, $1 billion under the stimulus plan, which is $2.4 billion more than the 2008 total for NASA. The agency was working under the 2008 budget totals this year, but the House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that added $360 million to the human space exploration budget for 2009.
This is a welcome move for those in favor of human space exploration but it's not without its own controversy. In particular, the new plans do not mention a specific launch system for the moonshot.
The Ares program has seen some tough engineering challenges, including a potentially destructive vibration problem that could destroy the rocket in flight, and questions about whether developing two rockets—one for the astronauts and one for the hardware—makes practical sense. NASA even saw a small-scale internal "rebellion" occur when some of its spaceflight designers created and actively lobbied for an alternative rocket design. And the recent request by Aldrin and team even notes that the Bush-origin Constellation plans weren't overseen by space policy experts or the public, and didn't receive enough funding to kick off properly
And perhaps President Obama's science advisers are considering this situation with the lack of a named plan in the budget. If there is doubt as to the rocket design, decisions now have to be made very swiftly due to the long lead-in for rocket development—or the 2020 target looks shaky. Until any word is out the NASA plan, according to spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz, is to "Proceed as you were."
[via New Scientist]