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NASA unveils new programs; shifts to commercial manned rockets, deep space exploration

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NASA unveiled new programs that mark a shift toward commercial manned rockets and the development of new technologies to enable deep space exploration.

Responding to the Obama administration's proposals, NASA on Thursday unveiled new programs that mark a shift toward commercial manned rockets and the development of new technologies to enable deep space exploration.

The president's fiscal 2011 budget request guaranteed NASA a small increase in funding at the expense of the Bush administration's Constellation moon program. The request's omission of a timetable for moving beyond low-Earth orbit generated considerable criticism that progress cannot be achieved without specific goals.

"This budget provides an increase to NASA at a time when funding is scarce," NASA administrator and former shuttle commander Charles Bolden said on a conference call. "It will enable us to accomplish inspiring exploration, science and R and D, the kinds of things the agency has been known for throughout its history."

Critics of the proposal say Obama effectively took NASA's legs out from under it, slashing more than 10,000 jobs connected to Constellation and the space shuttle, which is due to retire this year.

Last year, a panel concluded that NASA could not afford to continue Constellation without an additional $3 billion per year. It recommended a move toward commercial launch services to carry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, freeing NASA to focus on developing a heavy-lift rocket system to enable eventual flights to the moon and beyond.

The Obama administration's $19 billion fiscal 2011 budget request for NASA would add an additional $6 billion to the agency's budget over the next five years, mostly to spark development of commercial manned spaceflight capability.

Here's a breakdown of how NASA anticipates it will disperse the funds:

  • Houston, Texas' Johnson Space Center will develop a flagship technology demonstration program office for testing tech such as autonomous rendezvous and docking, in-orbit refueling and inflatable habitat modules. Cost: $424 million in fiscal 2011 and $6 billion over the next five years.
  • Merritt Island, Florida's Kennedy Space Center will develop a private-sector launch industry and host the deputy manager of the flagship technology demonstrations program. A new program office will manage $1.9 billion over five years to upgrade and modernize the launch infrastructure. Cost: $500 million in fiscal 2011 and $5.8 billion over the next five years.
  • Hunstville, Alabama's Marshall Space Flight Center will conduct heavy lift propulsion research and develop new designs for rockets needed for deep space exploration. Cost: $3.1 billion over the next five years.

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Andrew Nusca

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Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure