Many people were left gasping when President Obama unveiled his new plan for outer space, including his proposal to cancel NASA's Constellation program. It turns out that the great recession of 2008 and 2009 has claimed yet another victim, and this time it's the manned exploration of the Universe.
Back in 2004, President George W. Bush laid out an ambitious plan. The space shuttle was to be phased out this year, and five years later the replacement for the space shuttle (the Ares system) would be fully functional and operational. Then by 2020, the plan was to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, and after that maybe even the planet Mars.
Forget about it—everything is out the window!
As if President Obama doesn't already have enough on his plate, between health care, Afghanistan, education reform, budget deficits, etc., he now plans to visit Florida this month to host a space summit and discuss his Administration's new plans for the space program. According to the White House's official release: "The President and the NASA Administrator both believe that we have to be forward thinking and aggressive in our pursuit of new technologies to take us beyond low-Earth orbit."
In fact, over 4,500 people may lose their jobs outright when the space shuttle is phased out in the new strategy. Not to mention that over $9 billion was already spent on research to create the replacement for the space shuttle, the Ares 1 booster rocket. NASA's website states that "the Ares 1 is the essential core of a safe, reliable, cost-effective space transportation system—one that will carry crewed missions back to the moon, on to Mars and out into the solar system."
What does this all mean? It means that in the near term we'll have to depend on the Russians for access to outer space. Eventually—and this is the ultimate goal—we aim to get private enterprise to take over the manned space program. In the future, perhaps you'll see a Coca-Cola advertisement on the booster rockets as astronauts go into outer space with a Google logo on their space suits.
The main problem is that private industry has no experience at all in sending astronauts into outer space. They do of course engage successfully with cargo launches into space, but a manned space program is totally different and much more complicated. There are many things to worry about, including safety, life support systems, redundant systems, extreme temperatures, space debris, etc. So who's going to pick up the slack? The obvious answer is the Russians, and they are going to be the ones that benefit from all of this.
I think that some historians of the space program are smiling right now. Who would have thought at the height of the space race between Russia and the United States...when the future of communism and capitalism was at stake...when we had a huge propaganda war over space travel...who would have thought that we would be depending on Russia almost exclusively for access to outer space?
Lets face it—the glory days of NASA are over.
Many analysts have noted that the coming change in the space program is going to be dramatic and affect space travel for the next thirty years. Remember, this just isn’t a few tweaks—this is the first major overhaul, and the Yanks aren't coming!
I suppose we will have to wait until April 15th to hear the full details of the Obama Administration's plan for our space program. But I'll say one thing—this change WILL affect space travel for a generation.