Dramatic Changes Ahead for NASA

However, because the planned freeze is aggregate (that is, the total amount will be frozen, but individual accounts could still go up or down as long as the total doesn’t change), rumors are that NASA will still get a modest increase.

So, if we’ve lost the moon again, and Constellation, what is the new plan?

Apparently, the International Space Station (ISS), previously planned to be retired in 2016, will be extended until at least 2020, and likely beyond. As for replacing the shuttle in its role of supporting ISS operations and crew changeout, those tasks will be given to the burgeoning private industry players, such as Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), whose Falcon 9 rocket is expected to fly early this year, perhaps with its new Dragon crew module.

If the shuttle is extended at all, it will be only into 2011 to allow final completion of the ISS. As for ventures beyond low earth orbit, Constellation will be replaced with a technology development program for things such as propellant depots, landers, and other capabilities needed for such future missions. These are technologies that had been defunded by the previous administrator to provide funds for the troubled Constellation program, and will now be restored to their proper priority, with billions available for them once the shuttle is retired.

The agency will also be redirected, to no one’s surprise, to more monitoring of the earth and its environment, something badly needed, given what a mess the current “science” of climate change has turned out to be, though whether it’s a job for NASA (as opposed to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency) is a debate that the nation should have.

And of course, the White House proposes, and Congress disposes, and there is still a lot of support in various quarters -- Texas, Alabama, Florida -- for maintaining the status quo, with all of the associated jobs for civil servants and contractors. Congress has already stated that its approval will be required for any changes to Constellation funding, so there will likely be some horse-trading to allow the new plans to go forward.

For instance, in exchange for allowing the Ares program to die, it’s likely that Alabama Senator Richard Shelby will demand some other new heavy-lift vehicle development. The Augustine panel declared such a system necessary for exploration ultimately. And even if it’s not (as many, including this correspondent, believe), it seems to be politically necessary to maintain support for NASA funding.

So on these grim anniversaries, it seems to be the end of a decades-long era for NASA, going back to the early sixties. The agency will no longer develop or operate the vehicles it needs to get its astronauts into space, but will instead refocus on the means of getting them beyond low-earth orbit, as it should have after the announcement of the VSE. This is good news for those of us interested in human expansion of space, because it was never going to be affordable on NASA’s previous trajectory, which promised continued missions of billions of dollars each for a few astronauts.

Instead, the new market provided by ISS will supplement the private markets, such as Bigelow Aerospace for human transport to orbit, finally reducing its cost and making it affordable not just for government agencies, but perhaps for at least some of the rest of us. As I’ve long said, NASA’s job is not to send a man to Mars, but to make it possible for the National Geographic Society to do so. The new direction for the space agency is a long-needed step in that direction.