In early 21st century space news, the Obama administration has released its new NASA budget, and the moon has been placed on hold. The entire 'Constellation' program has been scrubbed. Overall the new spending plan adds $6 billion, a modest 6 percent, to the NASA budget over the next five years. It puts more emphasis on technology development and (robotic, for now) deep space missions - and looks to the private sector for post Shuttle human orbit lift.
So what should we make of this? Obvious disclaimer that I am unabashedly political, pro-Obama, and so would approve on purely terrestrial grounds. But I'll try to stick here to the space perspective.
Constellation was eating the NASA budget. From the fairly little I know it became a classic boondoggle, a system that was supposed to be 'lean' and based on available tech, but ballooned out of hand. More fundamentally - and the likely underlying cause of its technical runaway - is that it presumed a time line out of synch with available resources.
Did anyone really think we were going back to the Moon by 2020? The 'Murrican public has demonstrated its willingness to support a modest space program, about $20 billion/year. On that budget we can and have carried out a steady, ongoing reconnaissance of the Solar System, and expanded a standing human foothold in Earth orbital space. What you can't do on that budget is replicate Apollo (even with benefit of second generation technology) - especially if you also intend to do anything else.
Launching a program like that without committing the resources (political as well as financial) was somewhere on the spectrum from thoughtless to dishonest, and doomed the program to all the problems that plagued the Shuttle, only more so. It's better to cut our losses now, at 'merely' $9 billion. For what it is worth, objections to the change of direction seem to be coming mainly from politicians in Alabama. (Hmmm, in what state is Huntsville located?)
An interesting twist in the new budget is the element of 'privatizing' orbit lift. This is not so much privatization as such - US spacecraft have always been built by private firms - as a slap at the current procurement system and an opening to new players. I do not regard private enterprise as a magic drive, but shaking up a stagnant procurement culture might help and certainly can't hurt.
This is no profound New Start for NASA and the US space program. But it is a credible, sustainable way forward in the long term enterprise of space.
Irony alert: The image shows Constellation hardware that will be canceled under the budget plan.
Related posts: I previously recommended skipping the Moon for now, though it has turned out to be more interesting than I thought.