As late as 2010, NASA was planning a return to the moon by 2020. But budget cuts led to the cancellation of those plans, while NASA continued to design and build hardware associated with a lunar mission.

The question was always, why are they building hardware for a mission that doesn’t exist? Indeed, the Ares rocket — a heavy lift booster necessary to ferry the crew exploration vehicle, lander, and command module into space — continues to be built at the cost of several billion a year despite not having any purpose. It was hoped that eventually, NASA would come up with some alternate plans for a moon mission.

But those hopes have been dashed by NASA administrator Charles Bolden:

NASA administrator Charles Bolden has dismissed the idea that the space agency will attempt another manned Moon mission. Speaking with contemporaries, Bolden said “NASA will not take the lead on a human lunar mission… probably in my lifetime.” Bolden added that if the next administration reverses NASA’s decision it would set back the manned space program in its entirety. He warned that, should we divert resources towards a manned moon mission in the future, we would probably never “see Americans on the Moon, on Mars, near an asteroid, or anywhere” in our lifetimes, explaining that “we cannot continue to change the course of human exploration.”

The agency will instead focus on a manned research mission to a nearby Asteroid, as it announced three weeks ago. That’s not to say that we won’t see another human on the Moon — there are multiple companies planning commercial space flights, and Golden Spike last December committed to take people to the Moon by 2020.

Bolden’s statements echo the words of President Obama who, while making a speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, acknowledged there was a desire among some to return to the Moon before exploring the further reaches of space. “I just have to say pretty bluntly here: we’ve been there before,” said Obama back in 2010, “There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

“We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” said John Kennedy. Apparently, today’s NASA only wants to do the “easy” stuff — and take our own sweet time doing it too. Now we have plans to “lasso” a small asteroid and drag it into orbit around the moon:

The asteroid retrieval mission is based on a scenario set out last year by a study group at the Keck Institute for Space Studies. NASA’s revised scenario would launch a robotic probe toward a 500-ton, 7- to 10-meter-wide (25- to 33-foot-wide) asteroid in 2017 or so. The probe would capture the space rock in a bag in 2019, and then pull it to a stable orbit in the vicinity of the moon, using a next-generation solar electric propulsion system. That would reduce the travel time for asteroid-bound astronauts from a matter of months to just a few days.

The Keck study estimated the total mission cost at $2.6 billion — but the administration official said the price tag could be reduced to $1 billion, or roughly $100 million a year, if the mission took advantage of an already-planned test flight for NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew exploration vehicle. That flight would send astronauts around the moon and back in 2021.

“This mission would combine the best of NASA’s asteroid identification, technology development, and human exploration efforts to capture and redirect a small asteroid to just beyond the moon to set up a human mission using existing resources and equipment, including the heavy-lift rocket and deep-space capsule that have been under development for several years,” the official said in an email.

The 2014 budget would set aside $78 million for planning the asteroid retrieval mission, plus $27 million to accelerate NASA’s efforts to detect and characterize potentially hazardous asteroids. The federal government currently spends $20 million annually on asteroid detection.

Some may mourn the loss of a government moon mission, but the reality is we don’t have the money. We may not even have the money for the asteroid mission, given the direction of budget cuts.

But the chances are a private company will get to the moon sooner than NASA ever could. And they won’t go just to plant a flag and gather a few rocks. They will build mining towns and perhaps even construct a space center where missions to the outer solar system will originate, using the 1/5th gravity compared to earth that is found on the moon as a way to save hundreds of millions of dollars.

NASA plans a manned Mars mission by the mid 2030′s. I think by that time, it will be a moot point as private space companies will have preceded them by a decade.

America will maintain a lead in space exploration. But it won’t be government that will be running the show. In the next decade, American private industry (with the assistance of NASA) will be where the action is for manned space flight.

Perhaps NASA will be able to hitch a ride back to the moon with one of them.