Obama Orders a Review of NASA's Human Space Flight Program

By Eliza Strickland | May 8, 2009 8:48 am

space shuttle lightsWhile NASA‘s central mission is the same as it always was–to send astronauts up, up, and away!–the details of how it will send bold explorers into the space frontier are suddenly, well, up in the air. After months of signaling displeasure with NASA’s operations, the Obama administration has ordered a 90-day review of the human space flight program. In a letter to NASA Acting Administrator Christopher Scolese, the president’s science adviser, John Holdren, wrote that “it would be only prudent” to review NASA’s human space flight program given the magnitude of its ambitions and “the significant investment of both funds and scientific capital” [Washington Post].

The crux of the matter is the Constellation program, which aims to replace the aging space shuttles with the newly designed Ares rockets and Orion crew capsule. But during the past several months, watchdog agencies have questioned whether NASA can deliver the Constellation program on time and within budget. Its estimated costs through 2015 have risen from $28 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today, and engineers still are wrestling with design flaws that would cause Ares I to shake violently during ascent and also possibly drift into its launch tower [Orlando Sentinel]. Back in December, Obama’s transition team reportedly asked NASA officials if military rockets used to launch satellites could be reconfigured to boost astronauts to the International Space Station and on to the moon.

The announcement of the review coincided with the announcement of the proposed NASA budget. All told, Obama is requesting roughly $18.7 billion for NASA for 2010, a 5 percent increase that includes a roughly $150 million budget hike for the Exploration Mission Directorate – the part of NASA in charge of building the Ares I rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle [SPACE.com]. NASA officials say that work will continue on these projects while the 90-day review takes place.

The proposed budget also increased funding for studies of the earth’s changing climate, and backtracks from an earlier decision by the Obama administration to end all shuttle flights in 2010. After heavy lobbying from Florida lawmakers, the White House agreed to complete the nine launches left on the schedule — even if a few slip into 2011 [Orlando Sentinel].

Related Content:
80beats: Obama Team Raises New Questions About NASA’s Plans to Replace the Shuttle
80beats: NASA’s Latest Worry: Ares Rocket Could Slam Into Launch Tower
80beats: On NASA’s 50th Anniversary, Many Fans Fret for Its Future
80beats: NASA Considers Keeping Space Shuttles in Flight Past 2010
80beats: NASA Outlines Fix for New Moon Rocket’s Vibrations: Giant Springs

Image: NASA

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    You know, Russia already has the basic technology that we’re trying to replicate with Constellation and Orion – they can send up huge, though conical, payloads – we just have to design a new crew module.

    Look, this rocket can loft the same weight payload as the Space Shuttle – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angara_(rocket)

    And the Proton is almost as capable – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proton_(rocket)

    The only difference? These rockets weigh a fraction of what the space shuttle weighs. The shuttle weighs 2 million kilograms (presumably with all rockets attached? Wikipedia doesn’t specify). The Proton, sans payload, weigh under 700,000 Kg, the other one just over a million Kg.

    So sure, the shuttle may be big, but it’s kinda inefficient, and because it can take up HUGE objects, it’s slowing down innovation on small-payload-building-itself-into-larger-structure technology like Bigelowe Airspace is working on.

    Re-usable craft are pretty awesome on paper – but the harsh reality is that it makes them ticking time-bombs. Ever since that last shuttle blew up on my birthday, well, every subsequent flight makes my heart go out to the astronauts, doing their brave duty sitting on thousands of tons of explosives waiting to ride them into space, and hoping to glide back without completely disintegrating.

  • Gerry Wood

    It would be better to stop sending rockets up and use the money to find and develop a totally different type of propulsion system. What we have now is inefficient and unusable for any type of really long distance exploration. Rockets can never reach light speeds.

  • Brian

    So what is the Obama team looking at?

    Is this a radical rethinking? Maybe supporting Jupiter Direct? Maybe abandoning manned deep space missions and going back to automated ones?

    Or is this more of slight pause and readjustment kind of thing?

    NASA published an interesting document, “The NASA-ESA Comparative Architecture Assessment”. They looked at doing some coordinated development with the Europeans, mainly around the lunar missions. It was all very early assessment stuff, like where cooperation looked promising and what did not.

  • ARad

    Whatever happened to the space elevator concept?

  • JW

    I think space exploration is great and all, but I believe a large portion of the money would be better spent trying to solve our energy problems. Alternate fuels could drastically change things to the point requiring redesign anyway.

  • http://TwoSistersArtandSoul Lisette Root

    Each day that goes by brings new knowledge in every concievable field. Just think what we could do if we made war, povery, and disease obsolete! The emerging technologies using carbon fibers and other amazing materials such as aerogel( I think that is name of the amazing clear material used by NASA) will surely with time be able to overcome many of these engineering problems. Together, the stars are the limit.

  • StevoRaine

    Rockets can never reach light speeds.

    NOTHING can ever reach light speed.

    Its the law of physics as we know it.

  • StevoRaine

    Whatever happened to the space elevator concept?

    The idea is still around. The British ‘Sky at Night’ astronomy magazine recently covered the topic in an article.

    Notsure if we have the technology to build it yet – or whether anyone’s actively attempting or planning to attempt it.

    It would be very costly and difficult to construct but an awesome idea if it can ever be done.

  • StevoRaine

    D’oh! Italics were meant to stop after the “Sky at Night’ … :-(

  • 2552


    That’s what the Department of Energy is for (and they get more money than NASA anyway, $24.1 billion for DoE vs $17.6 billion for NASA)

  • michael johnson

    One thing is for certain…………however it is accomplished, we must insure the continuation of the human endeaver to explore……………..I would remind the skeptics of a time when the whole world collectively prayed for the return of three men returning to Earth in a broken ship………..yes Apollo 13…………can you imagine even congress calling for prayer today as it did then? Yes, my words are simple, perhaps too emotional………but even the poor, the deprived, or the most average of men, are lifted up by the actions of those men and woman who have the courage and the will to strap themselves into these immense and complex machines and ride them into the cosmos. When I was a child……no one would have dreamed that one could stop at the local drug store, go to the magazine rack and pick up a magazine with images of the birthing of stars, or the surface of mars…………..thank you Nasa……..thank all of you Americans with the dream beyond the selfish self serving, who wallow in the mindset of victimization.

  • Mike Mullen

    Two things, if an alternative to the Ares rocket is sought there is a better option than the Russians in the shape of the ESA Ariane V, already slated to launch the James Webb telescope.
    Surely expanding ESA/NASA co-operation is a good thing NASA can develop the Orion and ESA can work to man rate the Ariane.
    Also for the sake of sanity start working on the one alternate power source that is already technically possible; dust off the research material and restart NERVA, at least as a starting point for nuclear propulsion development, we can’t continue to let green hysteria cripple continued space development.

  • Sebastien Sanscartier

    Bon, Je Te Membrace.


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