Later today the Obama Administration will reportedly announce major changes in the U. S. space program that may amount to the effective end of manned space flight after this decade. As a guy who has been trying to mount his own mission to the Moon I’m not yet sure how I feel about this. Maybe it is a great opportunity, but probably not.
The FY2011 federal proposed budget will be published with the following changes:
— NASA’s Constellation program to replace the Space Shuttle will be cancelled and all hardware development will be stopped including Ares 1, Ares 5 and Orion.
— The Moon is no longer the first stop in the exploration program, replaced by the so-called Flexible Path which really does not mean anything: “We are not sure where we are going, whether to the Moon, asteroids, empty space (Lagrangian points) or Phobos, so we will spend years and billions of dollars thinking about it while deferring any real mission development.”
— NASA human spaceflight will concentrate on International Space Station (ISS) flights, using commercially developed hardware (whatever that means: NASA has had zero success in relying on outsourced systems).
— There is no real post-ISS program. Maybe something will happen past 2020 but that is for the next administration to figure out.
Where NASA goes other space agencies will follow (the Europeans, Indians, even the Russians, possibly leaving only the Chinese still headed to the Moon). The Moon is out as a destination, considered by some as too hard and others as too boring. Over the next two years we will see a serious drop-off in interest expressed by various groups (like the Google Lunar X-Prize effort).
This has happened before: back in 1990s everybody was into Mars missions (NASA, other government agencies and private groups). When NASA lost interest in Mars around 2001-03 and turned to Moon other nations followed.
On one hand this pending announcement is terribly disappointing. There is a very high chance that we will see an end to U. S. human spaceflight within the next few years. But it was probably inevitable. NASA is too screwed up to do anything else without a major restructuring and that would require spending too much Presidential capital in this terrible economy.
My Moon mission, of course, is still on.