The Obama administration released its formal 2010 budget proposal today, proposing about $18 billion for NASA, about a 5 percent increase. More interesting are reports that the human spaceflight program will undergo a major review, one that may end the current plan to establish a permanent moon base.
All of this is bound up with the troubles of the Ares rocket, the main component of the 'Constellation' program, the overall cost of which is now projected to run to $44 billion. That is not the worst of its problems; one recent worry about Ares is that it might drift into its launch tower during liftoff. That is the sort of thing that American space rockets used to do back around 1959 - we really ought to be past that phase by now.
Given my politics I would love to blame it all on George Bush, but like Ares that probably won't fly. The truth is that all these decisions - not just the technical ones, but the policy framework - are determined several levels down. Because the further truth is that no national US political figure, so far as I can tell, is at all clueful about space. (The one possible exception is Newt Gingrich, who alas is clueless about Earth.) There is no reason they should be this early in the 21st century; the problems they have to deal with are overwhelmingly terrestrial. By 2059 or 2109 it could be a different matter, but not yet. As a practical matter we are unlikely to have a president who knows anything about space till we have one who grew up on science fiction.
Nor am I qualified to bloviate about the Constellation program or Ares technology, since I haven't followed the technical issues at all. The only observation I'll make is that returning to Earth by parachute, as the Orion crew capsule is intended to do, is probably not such a bad idea. When I first heard the idea it sounded horribly retrograde, a huge step backwards from the Shuttle. Parachuting down sounds like an emergency procedure, because we associate it with bailing out, even though about 99.99 percent of the people who have ever used a parachute did so by intent. Space travel is not aviation. There is no reason to put heavy structures like wings on a spacecraft if you can avoid it. This is one area - by no means the only one - where the rocketpunk-era vision has led us somewhat astray. (Though I still think the Skylon concept is way cool looking.)
But what about a moon base? This is another tradition that goes back to rocketpunk days - and perhaps another one whose time has passed. The moon has two problems: It is not really on the way to anywhere, and it has at most traces (if even that) of what we need most to get anywhere, namely volatiles AKA rocket fuel. So much - alas! - for producing fuel on the moon and shipping it to L5 or Earth orbit. The fuel isn't there to ship out.
Mars, on the other hand, certainly has water ice and probably enormous amounts of it, locked in permafrost just beneath the surface. Extracting it won't be easy, but at least it is there to extract. Somewhat handily Mars also has an atmosphere, so Mars orbital tankers can return to the surface with only modest descent fuel. Even better, there are hints that Deimos, the diminuitive outer moon of Mars, may have volatiles. If so it will be the natural gas station of the inner Solar System, directly accessible to electric powered deep space craft.
Does this mean skipping the Moon altogether? Almost certainly not. If nothing else, we'll want to test our planetary-landing procedures fairly close to home before using them on interplanetary missions. Not to mention that we haven't explored the place, only barely touched it.
But it is a very poor second to Mars, and that is what our primary goal ought to be.