Obama’s budget puts an stop to efforts to send an American back to the moon, on the seventh anniversary of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, opens the door to a furious fight in Congress over America’s ambitions in space. Congressmen from Florida, Texas, and Alabama, states that have already lost thousands of NASA jobs thanks to this year’s planned retirement of the space shuttle fleet, plan to fight tooth and nail to keep the moon shot program, Constellation, alive.
Bill Nelson, a Democratic Senator for Florida and former astronaut who flew on a space shuttle in 1986, commented “They are replacing lost shuttle jobs too slowly, risking US leadership in space to China and Russia, and relying too heavily on unproven companies.”
Michael Griffin, the former NASA chief who resigned when Obama took office, called the budget “disastrous”, and drew the comparison to Nixon’s cancellation of the Apollo programme in the 1970s. He told The Washington Post, “It means that essentially the US has decided that they’re not going to be a significant player in human space flight for the foreseeable future.”
He added that, while he supported moves to invest in commercial cargo flights to space, he doesn’t think that commercial firms, such as SpaceX and Dulles-based Orbital Sciences, are ready to take over the risky and difficult job of ferrying human beings to orbit yet. “It’s like 1920. Lindbergh hasn’t flown the Atlantic, and they’re trying to sell 747s to Pan Am.”
NASA has already spent more than $9bn on Constellation, including testing the Ares I rocket designed to replace the Space Shuttle for transport and supply missions to the international space station and beyond. Obama’s budget report characterized the program as “based largely on existing technologies, over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation.”
Charles Bolden, NASA’s new administrator, said “The truth is that we were not on a path to get back to the moon’s surface. There will be challenges as a result of cancelling Constellation, [but] the funding for Nasa is increasing, so we expect to support as many if not more jobs.” The budget gives Nasa $19bn for 2011, and $100bn over the next five years; the proposal also extends the international space station until 2020, but time will tell if it is enough to maintain America’s leading role in space exploration.