NASA's proposed 2011 budget signals a shift from human space flight to robotic and scientific exploration. NASA officials say this will build the foundation for future manned missions, possibly to Mars, but some lawmakers say the shift is the beginning of the end for U.S. dominance in space exploration.
In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy defined the course of space exploration for the 20th Century.
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth," said President Kennedy. "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space."
For most people, and for much of the past 50 years, thoughts of NASA are linked to images of shuttle launches and men bounding across the surface of the moon. But the new focus for NASA, as outlined in the proposed 2011 budget, is not on shuttle launches or lunar landings.
The proposed budget eliminates the Constellation program that was to develop new spacecraft and rockets to replace the shuttle fleet that is set to be retired this year.
NASA administrator, Charles Bolden:
"In terms of NASA planning, Constellation, as a program, is dead," said Charles Bolden. "The concepts that come out of Constellation, as I have said before, many of them are invaluable."
NASA's $19 billion proposed budget for 2011 reflects a more than a quarter-billion-dollar increase over this year's spending, with an additional $6 billion investment in science, aeronautics and spaceflight technologies during the next five years. It represents a shift toward greater investment in science, research and development that could lead to technological and aeronautic advancements.
Bolden says the proposed budget will allow NASA to develop the technologies to enable robots and humans to go beyond Earth orbit, deep into space.
"We're talking about technologies that the field has long wished we had, but for which we did not have the resources," he said. "This budget enables us to plan for a real future in exploration with capabilities that will make amazing things not only possible, but affordable and sustainable."
The ultimate goal, Bolden says, is a manned mission to Mars. But he notes that NASA does not yet have the ability to do this or to even set a date for when it will send astronauts to the Red Planet.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, issued a statement in February warning that the proposed budget spells the end of U.S. leadership in space exploration. She added, that in doing so, the United States is giving up vital national security and economic interests.
David Vitter is a member of that same Senate committee. He was among the lawmakers who voiced opposition to the proposed budget at a hearing earlier this year. Vitter lamented what he considers to be a loss of vision and bold planning for the nation.
"I believe the consensus opinion reaction to this budget is that it is a radical departure," said David Vitter. "And if vision without resources is a hallucination, resources without vision is a waste of time and money. And that's what I think this budget represents."
Miles O'Brien, a journalist who has covered space exploration for 20 years and is a member of the NASA Advisory Council, disagrees. He says he believes people often think of NASA in terms of "Moon" or "no Moon" when the agency's scope is much broader.
"The absence of human spaceflight is a tremendous opportunity for NASA to talk about other things it does," said Miles O'Brien. "A lot of the oxygen in the room was taken up by [the time was spent talking about] the shuttle. And now that it's gone, there are going to be opportunities for NASA to talk about what it is doing at Langley Aeronautical Research Center in coming up with ways to make aviation greener, to make air traffic control systems satellite-based instead of ground based [, which is] 1950s technology."
The proposed NASA budget calls for more funding for studying the Sun, a greater focus on sciences and satellite systems that provide information about Earth's land and oceans, aeronautics research and space technology. It also puts more money toward funding the International Space Station - a project that will likely extend beyond 2020.
Again, Miles O'Brien:
"There is a commitment to do things that NASA really has not been paying enough attention to in recent years and it has a lot to do with maintaining leadership in space," he said. "Is it leadership in space to go back to the Moon, something this country did 40 years ago, or to design a rocket that will safely get us to Mars?"
In the meantime, many of those whose eyes are normally on the skies will be looking to President Obama on Thursday as he lays out his vision for U.S. space exploration at the Florida space center named after President John F. Kennedy.