The Ares-1 rocket
For years, NASA has been talking up plans of returning to the Moon by 2020, building a lunar base as a jumping-off point for missions to Mars and testing their new fleet of Ares rockets due to replace the ageing space shuttle fleet, but America's space hopes look set to lie in ruins as President Obama looks to make major cuts in the US 2011 budget.
The President's $3.8 trillion budget is aimed at creating more job opportunities, but unfortunately the additional tax cuts and public works proposed will add $100 billion to this year's deficit taking it to an astronomical $1.6 trillion.
This, of course, scuppers any plans to return astronauts to the moon, despite savings of $250 billion. Instead, NASA would get $5.9 billion over five years to encourage private companies to build, launch and operate their own spacecraft for the benefit of NASA and others. NASA would pay the private companies to carry US astronauts.
So what about the Ares rocket?
The Ares rocket has been the first new space vehicle to stand in NASA's Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building in the past 25 years, and this year was meant to officially take over from the Space Shuttle fleet.
The project, known as Constellation, saw NASA work on two Ares rockets, the Ares-1 and -5 as well as a new crew ship capsule called Orion, all key components in taking man back to the moon and on to Mars. However the new shift to incentivising private aerospace companies could see Project Constellation scrapped.
Of course, this doesn't sit well with NASA as well as the states that have been involved in the construction of Constellation's programs since 2003, when the scheme was initiated by President Bush after the Columbia shuttle disaster. Their workforces could face redundancies if future space missions are contracted out to private enterprises.
However independent aerospace firms are overjoyed about the plans. Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation said to the BBC that the plans were very encouraging.
"At a time when job creation is the top priority for our nation, a commercial crew programme will create more jobs per dollar because it leverages millions in private investment and taps the potential of systems that serve both government and private customers," he said.
"We have a tremendous opportunity here to jump-start private activity in low-Earth orbit that will further lower the cost of access to space and unleash the economic potential of space long promised."
Aiming higher than before?
Of course, seeing as NASA have been working on this project for years, isn't it just a massive waste of time and money to cut the program at this late stage? After all they have spent $9 billion on it thus far...
Despite criticisms that NASA could get the same capability faster, and much more cheaply, if it just modified elements of the current shuttle launch stack, Ares has passed all initial tests and is essentially ready to go. However, it has been described as "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation", namely by the President in his budget speech.
While NASA's grand plans of a moon base are almost certainly over, is there need to scrap a project that has come so far along just to transfer responsibly to private companies instead of NASA who have lived and breathed this for the past 52 years.
There is hope however; President Obama;'s budget proposal forces the space division to innovate themselves and essentially stop using the same technologies they've been using since the 60s.
"While we're cancelling Constellation, we're not cancelling our ambitions," said Jim Kohlenberger, chief of staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
"This isn't a step backwards. I think the step backwards was trying to recreate the Moon landings of 40 years ago using largely yesterday's technology, instead of game-changing new technology that can take us further, faster and more affordably into space."
The budget proposal for NASA asks for $18 billion over five years for discovering new ways to fuel spacecraft in orbit, including new types of engines to accelerate spacecraft through space and robotic factories that could churn soil on the Moon - and eventually Mars - into rocket fuel. Currently, massive rockets aer used to break spacecraft free of Earth's gravitational pull but the concept of having fuel depots in space could stop this.
Such 'fuel stops' could remove the need for massive rockets by instead putting propellant into orbit in smaller, more manageable batches - rather than on one heavy-lift vehicle.
However, the opposition condemned the move. Republican Senator Richard Shelby was quoted as saying, "The president's proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of US human space flight."
Only time will tell if this is the case.
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