President Barack Obama is set to effectively scrap all US manned spaceflight plans beyond Earth orbit for the foreseeable future, according to a newspaper report.
The Orlando Sentinel - which has proven itself to have good sources in US space circles in the past - says that the White House budget proposal for the US space programme (due to be released on Monday) will formally scrap the Bush administration's "vision for space exploration". The Bush vision called for NASA to mount a determined push to get astronauts out beyond low orbit, first returning to the Moon and then travelling to Mars within a generation.
NASA had planned to do this by retiring the Space Shuttle this year and then the International Space Station in 2015. In their place was to come the Constellation programme, which would have seen Ares I astronaut launchers and Ares V heavy-lift rocket stacks appear and Orion manned spacecraft to ride on them.
But Congress never supplied NASA with the funds to carry out these plans, a fact which had sunk in before President Obama even took power. Since then, a panel of bigwigs led by Lockheed CEO Norm Augustine has mulled the options - stating that a big NASA budget increase would be required for any "viable" manned space programme. Now it's time for the President to present his plans to Congress, and he seems to have set his face against any such substantial space funding growth.
According to the Sentinel, "there will be no lunar landers, no moon bases, no Constellation program at all". The paper quotes an unnamed administration official as saying that "we certainly don't need to go back to the moon".
In place of voyages beyond orbit, the Obama team reportedly plans to extend the ISS until "at least 2020", and sink large funds into private-industry-developed launchers and modules for getting astronauts to and from it. When the shuttle fleet retires this year, the only remaining means of access to the station will be Russian Soyuz craft.
There will also be increased money for "earth science" programmes, for instance satellites intended to monitor climate change.
There is mention of a "new technology research and development program that will one day make human exploration of asteroids and the inner solar system possible", but it seems that the "one day" will be a long way off. NASA will look into the matter of a new heavy lifter, the key item required for assembling long-range manned space missions, but there won't be any rush.
In effect, the Sentinel's sources indicate that plans for manned exploration beyond Earth orbit have moved back by a decade at least: children born in the last few years no longer have any chance of growing up to walk on Mars.
All that said, the Constellation programme has strong support in Congress - not least because it is a jobs bonanza for certain US constituencies. However, it seems that the White House - as in the case of the Raptor stealth fighter - is ready for a scrap.
The Sentinel quotes another nameless official as saying that "NASA can't design space programs to create jobs... that's the view of the president". ®