Obama Budget: NASA Would Have Private Companies Launch Astronauts

At the other end of the spectrum was Sen. Richard Shelby, R.-Ala., whose state is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center. Marshall has been managing the building of the Ares boosters, and years of work on them would now go to waste.

"The President's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight," said Sen. Shelby in a statement. "We cannot continue to coddle the dreams of rocket hobbyists and so-called 'commercial' providers who claim the future of U.S. human space flight can be achieved faster and cheaper than Constellation."

Obama will also get a fight from Sen. Bill Nelson, D.-Fla., who says he worries about thousands of jobs being lost at the Kennedy Space Center.

"If early reports for what the White House wants to do with NASA are correct, then the president's green-eyeshade-wearing advisers are dead wrong," said Nelson.

The Obama administration replied that NASA's plans under President Bush were "unsustainable."

NASA Budget: Fight Looms in Congress

"NASA's Constellation program -- based largely on existing technologies -- was based on a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020," says a summary from the Office of Management and Budget. "However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies."

"The current program wasn't going to get us back to the moon any time soon," Kohlenberger said. He said its goal of a lunar base by 2020 "was nearsighted by 15 or 20 years."

Can the Obama plan do any better? Simply shutting down Bush's Constellation program will cost $2.5 billion, and create anxiety for thousands of workers who were assigned to it.

And on its face, the Obama plan is more abstract in its goals. Will young people be attracted by a program that talks about "transformative technology development" instead of specifically sending explorers to the planets?

Just to let you in on the reference at the beginning of this piece: Dave Bowman was the astronaut-hero of the film "2001: A Space Odyssey." When Stanley Kubrick released the film in 1968, the idea of sending astronauts to Mars by the mid-1980s was openly discussed in Washington.

"Rather than setting those 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, at a briefing today.

"So the moon definitely continues to be an important destination for the future, together with near-earth asteroids and eventually the moons and surface of Mars."

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