Obama ends moon program, endorses private spaceflight

In a dramatic break with the past, the Obama administration's 2011 NASA budget ends the agency's moon program and calls for shifting manned launches to private industry.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
7 min read

On the seventh anniversary of the Columbia disaster, President Obama unveiled a sweeping change of course for the nation's space program Monday, putting an end to NASA's post-Columbia moon program and shifting development and operation of new rockets and capsules from the government to private industry.

Requesting some $19 billion for NASA in fiscal 2011, the administration announced plans to pump an additional $6 billion into NASA's budget over the next five years to kick-start development of a new commercial manned spaceflight capability, including some $500 million in 2011.

A launch tower being built for the Ares I rocket, part of NASA's now-canceled Constellation program, stands at the Kennedy Space Center with the program's target--the moon--visible in the remote distance. CBS News

Over that same five years, some $7.8 billion will be earmarked for new technology development, including autonomous rendezvous, orbital fuel transfer systems, and closed-loop life support systems. Another $3.1 billion will support development of new propulsion technologies needed by future heavy-lift rockets. And $3 billion will go to pay for a series of robotic missions to the moon and beyond to test systems needed for eventual manned flights.

"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," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters. "And imagine all of this being done collaboratively with nations around the world. That is what the president's plan for NASA will enable, once we develop the new capabilities to make it a reality."

No timetables were established for human flights beyond low-Earth orbit, with deputies saying the focus instead will be on enabling technology development and innovation.

As for commercial flights to and from the International Space Station, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said she hoped a new private-sector launch system, possibly including modified versions of technology developed for the canceled moon program, could be available by around 2016 if not earlier.

"We will try to accelerate and use the great minds of industry to get a competition going, and I'm sure they'll want to beat that," she said.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, chief architect of the now-canceled moon program, told CBS News the shift to commercial space operations was a profound mistake.

"I'm one of the biggest proponents of commercial spaceflight that there is, but it doesn't yet exist," he said. "I would like an enlightened government policy to help bring it about, but I don't believe you get there by destroying all your government capability so there's no option but for the government to do whatever necessary to get the 'commercial operators' to succeed. That's not the way to do it.

"Basically, you're burning the bridge behind you. Even if it's successful, now what you've done is you've created not a space program for the United States, you've created a capability to get to low-Earth orbit but there's nothing to do there because there's no government program," Griffin said. "Where's the market?"

Griffin said, "For the U.S. government to deliberately give up its lead in something that is fundamentally an enterprise of governments...for the United States to give up something that's an important part of our national identity in favor of outsourcing it to commercial enterprises when and as they come into being is bizarre."

George Bush's post-Columbia initiative to finish the International Space Station and retire the shuttle by the end of 2010 remains intact, with just five more missions planned for NASA's iconic winged spaceships. Funding is available to support operations through the end of the year--or early 2011 if necessary.

NASA dims lights for Constellation program (photos)

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The new budget also extends operation of the space station through at least 2020 and increases funding for science and utilization.

But as expected, it halts development of the Ares family of rockets and the Orion crew capsules NASA was designing to carry astronauts to the station and back to the moon by the early 2020s as part of the Bush administration's Constellation program.

The cancellation of Constellation and the near-term shift to commercial launch operations is a "more radical (plan) than I expected," said John Logsdon, a space policy analyst at George Washington University.

"It represents a fundamental shift in the way NASA goes about doing business, from being the direct designer of our space capabilities and then having industry build NASA designs to being the customer of what industry builds," he said. "Even NASA people use the analogy to the air mail contracts the government signed in the '30s. It's going to be a very different way of doing business."

The Obama administration concluded the Constellation program, which has cost taxpayers more than $9 billion so far, "was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies," according to a budget summary.

"Using a broad range of criteria, an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA's program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era...was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives."

The independent review, chaired by aerospace executive Norman Augustine, concluded last fall that the Constellation program, hobbled by previous budget reductions under the Bush and Obama administrations, was not workable without an additional $3 billion a year in restored funding.

The panel outlined a variety of alternatives and favored a so-called "flexible path" approach that called for relying on private industry for manned flights to and from low-Earth orbit while NASA focused on development of a new heavy-lift rocket and eventual flights to a variety of possible deep space targets, including the moon, asteroids, and even the moons of Mars.

The budget unveiled Monday said the Constellation program took money away from other NASA programs, "including robotic space exploration, science, and Earth observations."

The new budget cancels Constellation and replaces it a focus on preparing a more capable approach to space exploration, including:

  • Research and development to support future heavy-lift rocket systems that will increase the capability of future exploration and lower operations costs.

  • A technology development and test program that aims to increase the capabilities and reduce the cost of future exploration activities. NASA, working with industry, will build, fly, and test in orbit key technologies such as automated, autonomous rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support systems, in-orbit propellant transfer, and advanced in-space propulsion so that our future human and robotic exploration missions are both highly capable and affordable.

  • A series of robotic exploration missions to scout locations and demonstrate technologies to increase the safety and capability of future human missions and provide scientific dividends.

In a statement, Augustine said, "By allocating the technology resources highlighted in our report as being necessary, it will be possible to lay the foundation for travel beyond low-Earth-orbit...NASA will be able to focus on this true frontier and to regain its position as a cutting-edge research and development organization.

"This is obviously a demanding period from a budgetary standpoint. Importantly, the president's proposed program seems to match means to ends, and should therefore be executable," he said.

In a startling break with the past, the Obama administration ordered NASA to focus on a new initiative that would effectively outsource manned flight, turning to private industry to design and develop the rockets and spacecraft needed to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

Between the shuttle's retirement and the emergence of a new manned rocket system, U.S., European, Japanese, and Canadian astronauts will be forced to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz rockets at more than $50 million a ticket.

"The budget funds NASA to contract with industry to provide astronaut transportation to the International Space Station as soon as possible, reducing the risk of relying solely on foreign crew transports for years to come," the budget summary stated.

"A strengthened U.S. commercial space launch industry will bring needed competition, act as a catalyst for the development of other new businesses capitalizing on affordable access to space, help create thousands of new jobs, and help reduce the cost of human access to space."

The only U.S. rockets currently flying that are powerful enough to step into the roll of crew transport in the near term are the Boeing-built Delta 4 and Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 boosters used to launch military, scientific, and commercial satellites. Neither family of rockets is certified to carry humans.

Other companies are in the process of developing new spacecraft to carry supplies to the space station after the shuttle's retirement. But it remains to be seen how long it might take any of the commercial interests to develop, test, and deploy a manned rocket system.

It also is not yet clear what sort of control and oversight NASA will have in the new commercial arena, whether astronauts will remain government employees or private contractors, or how the agency's decades of operational experience might be leveraged by commercial operators.

"I think the primary way it translates over is for the winners in this commercial competition to hire the people that have the institutional memory," Logsdon said. "Second, we're going to be an operating station until at least 2020. So there's a core of operational folks inside NASA that will still be very much involved."

Contractors already occupy key positions in mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and at other NASA facilities, but it's not yet known how commercial manned space flights will be managed; who will have responsibility for mission design, safety, and execution; or how government facilities might be utilized.

Bolden and Garver provided no details into how the new program will be executed, but Bolden insisted safety will remain a top priority.

"NASA will set standards and processes to ensure that these commercially built and operated crew vehicles are safe," he said. "No one cares about safety more than I. I flew on the space shuttle four times. I lost friends in the two space shuttle tragedies. So I give you my word these vehicles will be safe."