The White House is giving NASA new marching orders, and questions and concerns loom. Seems like NASA is pulling the plug on its ‘back to the Moon by 2020’ vision and instead refocusing on creating new technologies and new alliances with private companies to get them into space. The new NASA 2011 budget request released yesterday actually gives an increase to their coffers to the tune of $19 billion. And the agency is saying that they will have at their disposal $6 billion over the next 5 years just to pump into development of new space technologies. The agency will now be concentrating on creating a brand new system of hardware that will make human space exploration faster and sustainable. Ideas talked about include developing orbital fuel depots where rockets could tank up, making automated factories that could convert lunar soil into water and rocket fuel, and new rocket propulsion systems using nuclear and ion engines that could get humans to destinations like asteroids and Mars much quicker than with conventional rockets we now use.
“Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of firsts’; and imagine all this being done collaboratively with nations around the world,” said NASA chief Charles Bolden yesterday at a news conference.
Where is this money coming from? Mostly from the retirement of the space shuttle fleet this year and the immediate cancellation of the Constellation program which included a new human vehicle, lunar lander and heavy cargo lifter rocket. NASA is betting on that private companies being able to take over the businessof sending astronauts into low Earth orbit (LEO). But the big question is when will these companies have a safe, human-rated spacecraft? There are a handful that are in pretty good shape to truck cargo to the space station but many experts are concerned when and if these private rockets will be ready. Some industry insiders say it will be at least 4 to 6 years before the first ride will be ready to take Americans back to LEO. That means until that happens everyone will be hitching a ride with the Russians on their Soyuz at about $30 million a seat.
There is quite a buzz on the blogosphere and online media with ‘space buffs’ pontificating what all this means but maybe we should reserve judgement until there are more details released on NASA’s new direction. When will the first private rockets be ready to take humans to LEO? What destinations beyond LEO are humans going to? What new technologies are we developing? What flagship missions do they have in mind?
All this may take a while as this controversial vision will have to pass the US Congress before anything of substance can begin. The facts are though that this is indeed a ‘game changer’ for the American human space program and it will take a lot of convincing to get all the stakeholders to buy into it. International partners like Canada may actually benefit and see more projects sent their way as NASA looks for new collaborations and new focus on basic research.
On paper, the vision looks promising but is a risky one. Can they put it into practice? Does NASA have the resilience to see it through? Will they get the support they need? Only time will tell…
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