NASA Drops Moon Plan and Refocuses Vision

    Full Moon

    President Barack Obama's 2011 budget request has effectively shut down NASA's five-year effort to return astronauts to the moon, leaving the U.S. space agency with lofty goals — but no firm deadlines — to once again send humans beyond Earth orbit.

    The budget request that was released released Monday, would scrap NASA's Constellation program to build the Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets for new manned moon missions — a $9 billion investment to date. The request calls for $19 billion in fundingfor NASA in 2011, which is a slight increase from the $18.3 billion it spent in 2010.

    However; the request does pledge extra funding to extend the life of the International Space Station through at least 2020 and offers $6 billion over five years to support commercially built spaceships to launch NASA astronauts into space. The space agency's three remaining space shuttles are due to retire later this year.

    The budget announcement occurred on February 1, 2003, the seventh anniversary of NASA's Columbia shuttle disaster, in which seven astronauts were killed during re-entry due to wing heat shield damage. It came just days after the 24th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle accident that killed seven astronauts on Jan. 28, 1986.

    NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, said that while the budget cancels the program building the agency's space shuttle replacement — the Orion crew vehicle — it is not trading away safety to embrace new, privately built spaceships to fly astronauts. It also paves the way for a "21st-century space program," he said.

    Bolden 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. They will fulfill a critical NASA need, spur industrial innovation and free up NASA to do the bold, forward-leaning work that we need to do to explore beyond Earth."

    Bolden also said NASA has already made new agreements with several commercial spaceflight companies to spur their efforts. NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology plan to make an announcement related to commercial spaceflight providers on Tuesday, NASA officials said.

    "This new path is a big change. I realize that," Bolden told reporters in a teleconference. "But it is not a change from the guiding principles of NASA. It makes America stronger. It enables us to draw more strongly on the ingenuity of the commercial sector and create deeper ties with our international partners."

    The new plan is not without its opponents, particularly in states that have traditionally been home to major NASA efforts. "This is a crippling blow to America's human spaceflight program," said Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas.  "It has taken over 50 years to build and develop America's ascension to its rightful place as the dominant player in human spaceflight. That dominance is apparently no longer desired."

    Texas is home to NASA's Johnson Space Center, where astronauts train for space missions and the mission control centers for the shuttle fleet and International Space Station are headquartered.

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