Obama Budget: NASA Would Have Private Companies Launch Astronauts

NASA handing over to private enterprise

It is the year 2019, and a small supply ship is delivering a new crew to the International Space Station.

The ship looks vaguely similar to the Apollo spacecraft NASA used to send astronauts to the moon 50 years ago, and the commander -- for argument's sake, we'll call him Dave Bowman -- has, like Neil Armstrong, a background as a civilian test pilot.

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What's different is Bowman's paycheck. He is not a NASA employee. He may work for Boeing, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin startup, or another aerospace company. His firm describes the U.S. government as a "customer."

Bowman is philosophical about his job.

"A lot of people thought we'd be flying to Jupiter by now," he says, "but we're doing something else that's important. We've finally made spaceflight affordable and routine."

New Course for NASA

If the Obama administration has its way, something like this may happen as NASA changes course under its proposed new budget. The Constellation project -- ordered by President Bush in 2004 to return astronauts to the moon and eventually send them to Mars -- would be canceled. The Obama administration says it was too expensive -- $9.1 billion so far -- and relied on old technology.

In its place, NASA would concentrate on developing new technologies for future exploration, leaving some of its existing functions -- such as launching astronauts to the space station -- to private industry.

"Imagine enabling hundreds, even thousands of people to visit or live in low earth orbit, while NASA firmly focuses its gaze on the cosmic horizon beyond earth," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a telephone news conference today.

James Kohlenberger of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy joined in: "While we are canceling Constellation, we are not canceling our ambitions for exploration."

Some space entrepreneurs said they were thrilled. Others -- especially if they worried about existing aerospace jobs in Florida, Texas and Alabama -- promised a fight to the finish in Congress.

Highlights of Obama Plan

Some highlights in the proposed NASA budget:

Extend the life of the space station at least five years, to 2020 or beyond.

Spend $7.8 billion over five years on new technologies "that reduce the cost and expand the capabilities of future exploration technologies," including ways to refuel spacecraft in orbit and keep astronauts going on long missions without supplies from earth. There would be robotic missions to the moon and nearby asteroids, as precursors to eventual flights by astronauts.

Build new heavy-lift rockets with improved materials -- but not the Ares I and Ares V boosters from the Constellation project. To save money and development time, they relied heavily on components from the space shuttles, which will be retired in a year after five more flights.

Obama NASA Budget: Don't Shoot For the Moon Quite Yet

Spend $6 billion over five years to jump-start private companies to take over the job of launching astronauts and cargo.

These are major changes for the space effort -- and there will be clear winners and losers if the White House gets its proposal through Congress.

"I think the new plan is fantastic," said Eric Anderson, the CEO of Space Adventures, the firm that has brokered flights by so-called "space tourists" to the space station. "If you have children, I want those kids to grow up in a world where they realistically believe they can fly in space."

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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