No Liftoff: Obama's Plan Grounds NASA

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NASA / AFP / Getty

NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon

NASA will always have fans, and they'll always be rabid — folks who love the machines, swoon over the history and long to see Americans back on the moon and flying on toward Mars. For this space-happy group, here's some good news: even in hard economic times, President Obama would actually increase NASA's budget — to more than $100 billion — over the next five years. But space junkies had better be satisfied with that positive development, because it's just about the only one.

On Monday, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden unveiled both Obama's proposed space budget through 2015 and the Administration's plans for how that money should be spent. And though Bolden filled his prepared remarks with all the usual promises to "blaze a new trail," answer a "bold challenge," "spur innovation" and, of course, inspire young people, the fact of the matter is that the new plans will keep America on the ground for most of the next decade or longer. And whenever U.S. astronauts finally do return to space, they won't be going very far.

The initiative, for now at least, is more about what NASA plans to cancel than what it plans to pursue. The six-year-old Constellation program, which had been focused on developing new boosters, Apollo-like orbiters and a 21st century lunar lander, all with the goal of making long-term stays on the moon possible, will be scrapped, after $9 billion and a single flight of the Ares 1 booster last October. The longer-term goal of venturing out to Mars is being tabled along with it.

In place of that program, NASA will tackle a grab bag of other projects: extending the life of the so-far unfinished International Space Station (ISS) until 2020, and spending $4.9 billion to develop better robotics, $7.8 billion to develop new flight techniques such as in-orbit fuel depots and closed-loop life-support systems, and $3 billion to develop new unmanned ships. There are no entirely unworthy objectives in that list (with the possible exception of the ISS), but there's also no clear way of getting humans back into space after 2010, once the shuttles are mothballed. What's more, there's not a thing in the plan that would get your heart to race. Building spaceships just for the public thrill of it may seem like a luxury we can't afford, but the new direction has even deeper problems. Here's why.

The International Space Station is one of the only major stakes NASA has left in the manned space game, and postshuttle it will be the only one. For a while the U.S. won't even have a way to go back and forth between the ISS and earth without hitching a ride on a Russian ship. The station was proposed in 1984 and has been under construction since 1998, and so far not a lick of truly valuable science has come from it. Its intended mission has changed and changed and changed again over the years, from materials manufacturing to zero-g experiments to astronomic observations to studying human adaptation to space flight. And what were the new ideas Bolden cited on Monday? "A broad array of biologic, materials and combustion research," the administrator said, in addition to addressing "practical medical questions about astronaut bone density and the effects of radiation." In other words, more of the same.

More problematic is NASA's planned abdication of its role as a developer of manned boosters and spacecraft. Instead, it will become a shopper, and leave the designing and metal-cutting to the private sector. To an extent, this has always been the case. The first Americans to orbit the earth blasted off aboard Atlas and Titan rockets — both built by commercial companies as missile launchers and later adapted to human flight. The Saturn moon rockets were the first designed and built exclusively for humans, but even those were contracted out. Still, it was NASA minds that drove the designs and the result was what might have been the finest boosters ever built.

For the 21st century, the agency will be turning to a mix of suppliers to dream up its rockets, notably United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing. The company already has a big and impressive lineup of boosters that it sells regularly to the military and commercial launchers. And with 37 flights in the past 36 months, it clearly knows its business. The problem is that ULA rockets were not built for the trickier job of launching people, and not a single one of them is crew-rated. It will take at least four years to make the necessary adaptations according to one industry insider, and that's assuming no delays or cost overruns. Never assume that.

The most intriguing new addition to the private rocket game is Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), founded by Elon Musk, better known as the man who created PayPal. SpaceX has impressed and indeed charmed NASA, and not without reason. Its Falcon 1 rocket has been launched five times; the last two successfully reached earth orbit and the last one lofted a commercial payload. What's more, the operation — with 800 employees working principally in Los Angeles and central Texas — has something of the young, hyper-caffeinated energy of the old NASA. The space agency has already inked a deal for 15 Falcon flights, 12 as unmanned missions to resupply the ISS and three manned.

The unmanned missions SpaceX may well be able to handle. It would be a lot easier to believe in the manned ones, too, if NASA had any crew vehicle it could put on top of a Falcon, which it doesn't. SpaceX is building its own crew vehicle, dubbed Dragon, which NASA can buy — if the thing is ever completed and proves itself.

Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who built the NASA-centric programs that were canceled on Monday, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, no fan of the new approach. "With this policy," he says, "the U.S. human space-flight program is grounded indefinitely, because no date for the availability of commercial human spaceflight can be reliably predicted."

And even if it could be predicted, Griffin's successor has been vague about where Americans will go once they do get back to space. Yes, there's the ISS. But after that? The best that Bolden could offer in his presentation Monday were vague promises of "people fanning out across the solar system," with the collaborative help of "nations around the world." Just which nations will join the U.S. and when we will all go Bolden didn't say. At several points, however, he did encourage his audience to "imagine" all of these things.

That, sadly, may be as far as it goes.