World and Nation

Obama budget privatizes NASA space exploration

The ambitious space initiative that President Barack Obama unveiled for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Monday calls for sweeping changes in mission and priorities for the 52-year-old agency, yet omits two major details: where the agency will send its astronauts and a timetable for getting them there.

If Obama’s proposed budget is implemented, NASA a few years from now would be fundamentally different from NASA today. The space agency would no longer operate its own spacecraft, but essentially buy tickets for its astronauts on commercially launched rockets. Future missions to deep space would draw in larger cooperation and financing from other nations.

For some, like the Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, where NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been developing the rockets singled out for cancellation by Obama’s budget, the proposed changes “begin the death march for the future of U.S. human spaceflight.”

Others, like Charles Lurio, a space consultant and an advocate of a so-called New Space commercial approach, were ecstatic.

“What this potentially gives us is a real space program, not a faux space program,” Lurio said. “The real one is one that builds a foundation for practical use and exploration.”

As expected, Obama’s proposal seeks the cancellation of the Ares I rocket, in development for four years as a replacement to the space shuttles. More unexpected, the request also would kill Orion, the crew capsule that was to sit atop the Ares I. The Orion is the only spacecraft in development that would be capable of traveling beyond low Earth orbit.

Whether Congress agrees to restructuring NASA remains to be seen. After spending $9 billion on Constellation, canceling contracts with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Alliant Techsystems and other companies would cost an additional $2.5 billion, NASA officials said.

As reports of the impending cancellation of Constellation leaked out last week, members of Congress, particularly those representing Alabama, Florida and Texas, homes of the NASA centers most involved with the program, expressed concern.

The Obama budget proposes $18 billion over five years for development of technologies like fuel stations in orbit, 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.