Barack Obama has decided to partially reverse his decision to cancel NASA's "Orion" manned space capsule, according to reports. However the US President will not reinstate Bush-era plans for manned space exploration beyond low orbit - starting with a permanent Moon base - in the near future.
The Associated Press reports that the reinstated Orion spacecraft will no longer be used to lift astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and later for missions to the Moon as had been planned. Rather, it will be launched unmanned aboard an existing rocket not rated for lifting humans, and subsequently dock with the ISS to serve as a lifeboat should the station's crew need to be evacuated to Earth.
At present the ISS lifeboat task is filled by a Russian Soyuz capsule.
According to senior NASA officials, the rest of the Bush administration "Constellation" plan - which would have added Ares I man-lifter and Ares V heavy cargo boosters to the Orion - remains dead. Under Constellation, astronauts would have travelled to orbit atop Ares I stacks, there to rendezvous with lunar landers and other equipment lifted by Ares Vs. Missions assembled above Earth would then proceed to the Moon, in time setting up a permanent base there.
Under the Constellation vision, expertise gained in the Moonbase programme would then have been used to mount a manned trip to Mars as soon as the 2030s. However it should be noted that Congress never agreed to supply the necessary funds for all this - it was not solely the Obama administration which killed Constellation.
Constellation's demise has drawn fierce criticism for the new President, however - not least from legendary astronauts Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the Moon, and Jim Lovell, heroic commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Indeed, with the Shuttle fleet slated for retirement this year, the US astronaut corps seemed set for decimation. The few remaining active spacemen and women would have spent the next several years - perhaps a decade or more, should new private-industry ships like Elon Musk's Dragon be slow to appear - fighting almost all the other astronauts and cosmonauts in the world for seats aboard Soyuz craft and slots aboard the ISS.
Perhaps even more politically harmful has been opposition from Washington politicians of both parties representing constituencies where thousands of Constellation-related groundbound jobs would be lost.
Thus it seems that Obama will yield and permit Orion at least to live on, though without its accompanying rockets and without any firm plan to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. However, officials have said that Obama will commit to a new, as-yet undecided heavy lift booster design by 2015 - potentially allowing the assembly of longer-ranging manned missions even sooner than under Constellation.
There are still many critics of the new ideas. AP quotes legendary NASA mission controller Chris Kraft of Mercury and Apollo fame as saying that the Obama administration continues to concentrate on "the wrong thing. The problem is not safety on space station and escape; the problem is getting to and from the space station ... We need a heavy-lift vehicle like we need a hole in the head."
Reportedly the President will deliver the new plan during a visit to Florida - a major space state - tomorrow. ®