Canceled Moon Shot Pays for NASA Science Boost

By canceling NASA’s moon mission, launched by former President George W. Bush in 2004, the White House pays heed to a report delivered last fall by the Norm Augustine commission, which declared that the goal of returning American astronauts to the moon by 2020 was unviable without a major boost to NASA’s budget. Instead, the White House has proposed eliminating the Constellation program, a $3.5-billion-a-year initiative aimed at building rockets, spacecraft, and other systems for the moon mission.

Although the moon mission would be zeroed out under the Administration’s proposal, NASA’s overall budget would increase by $6 billion over the next 5 years. It would go from $18.7 billion in 2010 to $19 billion in 2011.

NASA officials argue that Constellation’s end marks a major change in the nation’s space policy that could in fact accelerate space exploration by freeing up money for science and the funding of new technologies for future space flight, which would be led by the private sector instead of the government. NASA officials say they will leverage corporate investments and international collaborations to chart a new course in space exploration. That includes putting up money to extend the life of the international space station beyond the current end date of 2015 to at least 2020.

The good news for researchers is that the Administration’s proposed funding for science would climb to $5 billion in 2011 from a current level of $4.45 billion, although details on what new programs would be supported have yet to become clear.

“The number seems consistent with Obama’s stated commitment to science,” says David Leckrone, former chief scientist of the Hubble Space Telescope, who retired from NASA last fall. He says Charles Bolden, as the new administrator, deserves credit for seeing through an overall increase in the agency’s budget. “I’d have to give him good marks for coming away with a significant increase at a time of severe budgetary constraints,” Leckrone says. “It’s a coup, and I believe that Charlie had a major role in making that happen.”

The Augustine commission found that “key milestones” of Constellation “were slipping, and that the program would not get us back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost,” Bolden told reporters at a press conference after the budget was rolled out. He said the Administration’s budget proposal for NASA provides “$4.9 billion over 5 years for a broad space-technology program, including investments in very early stage and game-changing approaches” that would serve as a catalyst for commercial space flights.

It remains to be seen if Congress will agree with the proposed termination of the Constellation program, which is a source of jobs in Florida, Alabama, and a few other states. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has vowed to fight the cut, and more political opposition is sure to follow. Others—notably, members of the Augustine panel—are pleased. “This brings NASA back to its roots as an engine of innovation,” says Sally Ride, an astronaut who served on the commission.