Saturday, February 6, 2010

Obama's new plan for NASA; Constellation cut

After much waiting and many rumours, it has finally been announced that in the 2011 budget Obama plans on cancelling the Constellation program. This program was designed to bring people back to the Moon but has been criticized for being way behind and lacking in innovation.

The first test-flight of the Ares I is seen in the above photo. The Space Shuttle is to the left. Credit: NASA

The new budget also contains many new ideas and approaches, many of which are supported by the Augustine commission, which Obama assigned to review NASA. This is a completely new path for NASA, one that has been needed since the end of the Apollo program, but has never been an option until now.

The budget outlines plans to use commercially available rockets to bring astronauts to the International Space Station and low earth orbit while NASA focuses on exploring beyond. In the budget, $6 billion dollars is to be invested over the next five years for commercial space flight. This extends the lifetime of the International Space Station to 2020, but will cost much less than it does currently.

There will be prize competitions just like the vertical take off and landing rocket competition in 2009. This will spur innovation and help new start-up companies as well.

These investments should create thousands of new high-tech jobs and should "spin off other new businesses that will seek to take advantage of new and affordable access to space.

Focussing on the Earth for a second (yes, the Earth is a planet too), NASA will be paying more attention to global climate change and its impact on our fragile world. To start, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory will be funded again. This satellite will shed new light on Earth's carbon cycle and monitor the changing amounts of carbon emissions world-wide.

Speaking of climate change, NASA will be focusing on "green aviation" and will work on technologies to "reduce fuel needs, noise, and emissions of aircraft."

Focussing on NASA's future in human space exploration are the following investments:

A $3 billion program over the next five years will feature robotic missions that will scout and explore new sites for humans to visit.

About $3 billion is going towards research and development of heavy lift rocket technology over the next five years. During that time there will also be $7.8 billion spent on new approaches to spaceflight, such as in-orbit fuel depots and propulsion systems for long distance space travel.

A few images of what future space propulsion technologies may look like. Credit: NASA

This is where NASA needs to be involved. NASA is the one that should focus on pushing boundaries and moving beyond current capabilities. The commercial sector will be a great way to shuttle astronauts up and down with just a little oversight from NASA.

SpaceX should be ready to launch astronauts within two, maybe three years. The cost per person? $20 million. That's half of what it costs to use the Russian rockets, and far, far less than the Space Shuttle. SpaceX expects to launch its first unmanned Falcon 9 this year.

Allowing commercial aerospace companies to run the shuttling of astronauts frees up NASA to explore. Exploration is the main purpose of the agency!

Of course, there are a few details to work out, but the overall idea sounds great.

As always, there is the opposition. The Constellation programs employs thousands and thousands of people; it's not going down without a fight.

When discussing Congress' silly ways of dealing with good NASA budgets, Phil Plait clearly states (and I agree):
"I’m pretty damn tired of that, and I’m going to do something about it. I’ll write my Congressmen, and I’ll tell them that the time for bending over backwards is long gone. It’s time to grow a spine, time for boldness, time for innovation. Whether people like it or not, this is the new budget being proposed, and if Congress wheedles over it, then yeah, NASA really will be screwed, and we’ll spend the next four decades circling our planet and gazing at the Moon, wondering when we’ll ever go back."
[Emphasis added]

In any case, if this gets pushed through it will (finally) start up the commercialization of space, bringing down cost and enabling something to get done rather than circling the Earth like a bunch of vultures waiting for NASA to die.

I desperately hope that this gets pushed through Congress. It's time for NASA to leave the front porch, hit the road, head to the Moon, nearby asteroids, and ultimately, Mars.

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