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Obama scraps Constellation moon mission

Lunar visit pushed to unspecified future

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President Barack Obama is calling on NASA to cancel its plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and instead focus on developing "building blocks" for future deep space exploration as well as partnerships with private industry.

The canned lunar program, called Constellation, "was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies," according to the White House budget plan issued today. It said NASA's attempts to pursue its moon goals had drawn funding away from other programs, such as robotic exploration and Earth observations.

Confirming reports circulating last week, Constellation — which has already burned through about $9bn to develop the Orion crew capsule and Ares rockets — will be scrapped outright. Under the new plan however, NASA would receive a $6bn funding increase over the next five years to research new means of manned missions to the moon and beyond.

Between now and fiscal 2015, NASA would re-prioritize its funds to extend operations of the International Space Station past its planned retirement in 2016, beef investments in space research by private industry and academia, and launch a "steady stream" of robotic exploration missions to scout potential locations and demonstrate new systems for future human missions.

During a teleconference Monday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden emphasized that canning Constellation was a necessary decision.

"As much as we would not like it to be the case, and taking nothing away from the hard work and dedication of our team, the truth is that we were not on a path to get back to the moon's surface," he said. "And as we focused so much of our effort and funding on just getting back to the Moon, we were neglecting investments in key technologies that would be required to go beyond."

Former astronaut Sally Ride, an Augustine panel member, called the budget a "significant vote of confidence in NASA" that puts the agency on a sustainable path toward the future.

"The Augustine committee concluded that the previous trajectory that NASA was on was simply not sustainable," Ride said. "NASA was struggling under its own weight, the ISS was to be sacrificed at the end of 2015 to fund the Constellation program, NASA's technology program had been allowed to wither, and it's science had also suffered."

The new budget will support extending the lifetime of the ISS likely to 2020 or beyond, according to NASA. The goal is to fully utilize the orbiting outpost's R&D capabilities for science research as well as developing and demonstrating new technologies with international partners. It calls for $500m to contract private companies to ferry astronauts to the ISS after the US shuttle fleet is retired. In addition, the budget provides $6bn over five years to invest in development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles.

Obama's budget would spend $3.0bn over five years on "robotic precursor missions" to the Moon, Mars, and nearby asteroids to scout targets for future human missions and to determine the future course of space exploration. The plans also support further development of satellites to monitor Earth climate change.

While commercial spaceflight companies are predictably pleased with the news, the culling of Constellation would result in the end of many jobs built around the program. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, whose district includes Marshall Space Flight Center, said the budget proposal begins the "death march for the future of US human space flight."

"The cancellation of the Constellation program and the end of human space flight does represent change — but it is certainly not the change I believe in," Shelby said in a statement. "Congress cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record, a steady path to success, and the destruction of our human space flight program."

An in-depth overview of the fiscal 2011 budget can be found at NASA's website here (PDF). Obama's budget for NASA incidentally arrives at the anniversary of the loss of space shuttle Columbia in 2003. ®

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