The White House's proposed NASA budget draws on lessons learned from the past and could change the future of the space program.
- Space shuttle Endeavour is due to launch Sunday with the last major pieces of the space station.
- The station's cost overruns and delays will not be repeated in moon program, which the Obama administration wants to ax.
- Private firms are eager to join the space race.
NASA on Sunday is scheduled to launch space shuttle Endeavour with the last major pieces of the International Space Station -- 16 years later and 900 percent more costly than originally planned.
The space agency's follow-up program, called Constellation, won't have the same problem. The Obama administration intends to scrap the mission, heeding the advice of a nonpartisan panel of experts that said NASA would need an extra $3 billion a year to meet its goal of landing astronauts on the moon in the mid-2020s.
"The Augustine Commission had a really hard job, and they had to call bull---- on the NASA moon mission," Peter Diamandis, a commercial space advocate and founder of the X Prize competitions, told Discovery News.
"We have a history in the United States of what I call 'start-stop-start-stop-cancel' programs. We get these giant, grand dreams -- this bold vision -- and all the contractors cost too much and deliver too little. And ultimately, we don't have those national budgets to support it," he said.
In place of Constellation, the White House wants NASA to help private companies launch a new orbital space transportation industry, develop new technologies for future manned and robotic space exploration, beef up aeronautics research, and increase environmental monitoring of Earth.
"The 2011 NASA budget... acknowledges one of the biggest barriers to exploring space: how you pay for it," said Ken Bowersox, a former shuttle commander now working with Space Exploration Technologies, a startup commercial space launching firm that plans to fly cargo and crew to the station.
"One of the things that you have to work in order to fix that issue is the relationships between the government and the contractors which provide the services. The government, hopefully, will set the destination. The contractors, with their innovation and flexibility, should be able to come up with new and innovative ways to get that job done," Bowersox said.
NASA chief Charlie Bolden said he is still working to flesh out details of the new plan, which currently lacks goals or a destination.
"I fear we're going to have a great big rift, lose our engineers and scientists who have been working on this stuff all these years, and we'll never get them back," said Homer Hickam, a former Marshall Space Flight Center shuttle engineer who parlayed his boyhood love of rockets into a best-selling book and movie.
"My secondary fear," he added, "is that we'll say, 'Why have this capability when Russia can get us (to the space station) for $50 million a seat? The Chinese might even get us there for $25 million. We don't need an American space program per se.'"
The planned cancellation of Constellation, announced Monday, came as a shock to many NASA employees and contractors, who were looking to the moon program as way to push human exploration beyond the 225-mile orbit where the space station flies.
The shuttle launch team, however, has more immediate concerns.
"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the future," said Mike Moses, a shuttle program manager. "If we can't do what we're doing today right, then there really is no future for any of the spaceflight programs."
NASA has five flights remaining to complete construction of the space station before retiring its three-ship fleet later this year. Endeavour, which is carrying a connecting hub named Tranquility and a viewing port, is scheduled for launch at 4:39 a.m. EST.