The nation's space program can slip the surly bonds of Earth's gravity. But escaping the bonds of budget pressures and logistical problems is another story.
Space exploration is at a crossroads. NASA is scheduled to retire the space shuttle next year, leaving the United States with no taxi of its own to get to the international space station, which itself becomes a 250-mile-high orbiting white elephant when it is decommissioned after 2015. The shuttle is an aging transportation system. Its first mission occurred in 1981, so now it is akin to a 30-year-old car that needs to be replaced. The shuttle still is functional, and the space station still allows astronauts to conduct research, but NASA had to make a choice between operating the old technology or starting a new exploration program. The current plan favors a new program, but all that could change. Under severe financial constraints, President Obama must decide whether to continue on the current course and infuse the space program with billions of dollars, or scale back the efforts and risk losing the leadership role the United States holds in space exploration.
NASA is retiring the shuttle so that it can build a new ride to space called the Constellation that will get astronauts to the moon again; a plan to go all the way to Mars someday is under review. But a special committee this summer said NASA does not have nearly the cash it needs to carry out that ambitious plan by 2020, the timetable laid out by former President George W. Bush. In 2004, Bush asked for an additional $1 billion in funding for NASA, but that's a drop in the bucket compared with the current shortage of $50 billion over the next 10 years.
The budget troubles were already well known when Obama took office. But rather than go full speed ahead with the plans, Obama, who has spoken fondly of the space program, appointed the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee in May to get an objective view from industry heavyweights on where in the universe NASA should be setting its sights and, realistically, what it can afford to do. As the committee—led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine—gets ready to deliver its report to the White House and release it publicly later this month, the White House is finding out just how tough the choices will be. "Somewhere you had to take a timeout and admit there are smoke and mirrors here," says Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat and chairman of the House Science Committee, which will hold a hearing on the Augustine report and the future of NASA on September 15. "Trying to put a thousand pounds of canaries in a 500-pound box is where we are now."
Once the advisory committee gives its findings, the White House and Congress will have to answer some thorny questions. Should the shuttle program be extended to keep the United States from having to rely on partners like Russia for transportation to space? Should the life of the space station be extended five years to give scientists and astronauts a few more years to use the $100 billion orbiting laboratory, as many in Congress favor? Should NASA step aside from the business of ferrying astronauts to space itself and help private companies fill that role? If NASA puts its own lunar plans on hold, should the United States worry that some country like China will grab a strategic advantage by setting up an outpost on the moon? And should NASA go to Mars to explore the fundamental question of whether life is present elsewhere in the universe?
These questions collide with the reality of a new administration with lots of other priorities on Earth and a tight budget environment brought on by a lousy economy. But some hope the Augustine committee, which plans to send the White House a short list of options for continuing the space program, will help clear things up. "The message is pretty ugly. The whole notion we are going back to the moon, given the current budget, is a myth," says John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, who is writing a book on the space program under President John F. Kennedy.