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NASA Seeks Ride Into Space, Can Offer Gas Money


Ahead of the imminent "space summit" next week, and in the wake of some very dramatic rumors about its future, NASA's revealed how some of the proposed restructured government funding would be spent. It's NASA's future, folks.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden spoke to the press to defend the radical cuts and changes to NASA operations that the recent budget proposal would cause—he noted it's actually a more "sustainable" vision for the agency's future, and means that efforts can be more tightly focused on delivering new technology. "We're talking about technologies that the field has long wished" for, but that NASA "did not have the resources" to pursue, all intended to help "plan for a real future in exploration." That sounds like overly-smooth, distracting PR speak, but Bolden jollied his message up by noting NASA will now gain "capabilities that will make amazing things [...] possible."

As it stands, NASA's bold Constellation moon shot program is canceled, and the entire Space Shuttle operation is due to be taken out of the skies at the end of this year after just three more launches. Human space operations will switch to hitching a ride on Russian rockets to reach the ISS, until the new gaggle of commercial space companies come up with a human-ratable vehicle. This is the grim part.

The brighter part is that NASA plans to spend $424 million in 2011 to develop a new "technology demonstration office" at the Johnson Space Center. Before you begin to say "Forget demonstrating, I want them to build real stuff!" the new office will get $6 billion of extra funding over the next five years: I think they'll be building stuff, don't you? Research into automatic rendezvous and docking of spacecraft, in-orbit refueling and inflatable habitations are what NASA's talking about here—all ingredients needed to explore our solar system. Marshall Space Flight Center has another $3.1 billion that will be spent over the next five years to develop a new heavy lift propulsion system that'll help launch the really heavy kit that'll be needed to take humans beyond the moon's orbit. Kennedy Space Center will get a $500 million office to promote closer ties with the commercial space industry—and it'll get an additional $5.8 billion over that same five-year interval as the other agencies. Companies like SpaceX and Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin will be jumping at this news, you can bet.

That all sounds very positive, and politically it's probably about all that NASA can reveal at the moment. But there're no hard and fast targets in all this—it seems hugely floaty and vague, and that's something that any project manager will flag up as worrying: With no target, and billions of dollars to spend, isn't there a danger NASA will just sleepwalk from innovation to innovation (or one failure to another)? We also can't help but hope that some of those recent rumors about redesigning the Shuttle as an interim heavy lift solution end up being true—the flame of human exploration and bold risk-taking would seem to be a bit dim otherwise.

And one last thing, before someone comments "We shouldn't be spending on NASA, there are enough troubles down here!" then you need to know this: NASA, despite its lofty reputation, is only the fourth largest space agency in the U.S. The CIA, the NSA, and the USAF all have more cash to spend on space exploits. Maybe we should be shifting some money from these guys, don't you think?

To keep up with this news, and more spacey and Earthly news like it, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too.