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What's next for US spaceflight, if not the moon?

Under Obama's 2011 budget, NASA would cancel plans to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020 and hand off space-taxi services to private companies.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / February 16, 2010

‘Dragonlab’: Artist’s conception of SpaceX’s reusable space ‘tug,’ designed to lift payloads to the space station.

SPACEX/AP

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The Obama administration has submitted budget proposals to Congress that give a new direction to the US space program, particularly its human-spaceflight activities.

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During the next five years, the president proposes to boost spending for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by $6 billion over 2010 levels. However, gone is the ambitious Constellation program, which aimed to build a replacement for the space shuttle and put US astronauts back on the moon by 2020.

In its place – if Congress is willing (and several key lawmakers don’t appear to be) – is a NASA that would instead develop partnerships w ith the private sector. These would support the ability among commercial companies – from veterans such as Boeing to upstarts such as SpaceX – to build and operate rockets to provide cargo and taxi services to and from low-Earth-orbit destinations such as the International Space Station.

By handing off space-taxi services to private companies, administration officials say, NASA would be free to focus on developing technologies that would lead to far more powerful rockets and other capabilities to support human exploration of destinations that could include the moon, nearby asteroids, and, eventually, Mars.

The goal is to lay the groundwork for a truly national space transportation system, just as the government did nearly a century ago for aviation.

“Rather than setting destinations and timelines, we’re setting goals for capabilities that can take us further, faster, and more affordably into space,” said Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, during a budget briefing earlier this month.

What would NASA get in the proposed new budget?
President Obama seeks to spend $6 billion over five years for the transition to commercial launch providers. That would support higher-risk start-ups and help long-established rocketmakers – whose previous efforts have focused on launching satellites – to modify their rockets to meet NASA’s safety and reliability standards for human spaceflight.

At the same time, the budget contains nearly $11 billion over five years for developing technologies for a new generation of so-called “heavy lift” rockets – which can carry heavy payloads into orbit – as well as for developing and demonstrating technologies that would allow humans to move beyond low-Earth orbit.

It would also spend some $3 billion over five years to send robotic missions to potential destinations to act as scouts in advance of the arrival of astronauts.

What would be the biggest change for NASA?
The agency would be relieved of much of its remaining operational role in long-term human spaceflight. It would also increase its focus on pushing the technological frontier in ways that could help human explorers extend their range within the inner solar system.

“This brings NASA back to its roots as an engine of innovation,” said former astronaut Sally Ride during the budget proposal’s rollout.

Why were manned lunar missions canceled?
Money. The Constellation program never got the financial backing from the White House or Congress it needed to match the vision of returning to the moon by 2020. As a result, the program’s milestones kept slipping. Slippage translates into higher long-term costs.

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