Last Updated Feb 3, 2010 6:09 AM EST
The end result of a review of NASA's future by the Augustine Commission as well as what seems to be a significant shift in the science investment plans of the new Administration the new focus of NASA will be earth science research and climate change. The International Space Station (ISS) will continue to operate although it will now rely on Russian systems for support as the Space Shuttle looks at its last flight this Fall. NASA had already awarded contracts for commercial development of supply vessels for the ISS and the idea of using similar contracts for launching men in to space may just be a rational continuation of those plans.
The Augustine Commission had reported that Ares and Constellation were underfunded and behind schedule. This is not uncommon for development programs of their scale. Rather then provide the injection of funding required to meet the needs of these programs they were ended. Constellation would have eventually taken humans back to the Moon and laid the foundation for deeper missions to perhaps the Asteroid Belt and Mars. With its cancellation there will have to be a pause while new systems are either developed commercially or NASA starts up a new one in a few years.
Obviously the leaders of the commercial space companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (OSC) who have already received contracts for the supply vehicles look well on the new budget plan. Up to six billion dollars will be flowed to them and other corporations to begin development of the new vehicles to carry humans over the time of the planned budget. These companies will see a benefit and may be able to grow. United Space Alliance a joint venture between Boeing (BA) and Lockheed Martin (LMT) may also benefit as they already make boosters for satellite launches. Their technology could support human payloads.
The major concern faced by all the areas of the country that currently work on Ares and Constellation is the loss of jobs and income. Already the Tennessee Valley in Alabama home of the Marshall Space Flight Center where the two programs are headed is protesting the cuts. Their fight along with Florida and Texas will be taken up in Congress by Senators and Representative as they try to prevent the cuts. The argument about cutting jobs in the middle of the recession will be one. There have already been reductions related to the end of the Space Shuttle and without Ares and Constellation these may go up.
Of course until the final budget is voted on and begins to be executed the changes are going to be hard to figure out. Some compromised might end up being worked out where parts of Ares and Constellation are continued which could support the new planned efforts. The United States will need some form of launch vehicle capable of carrying large payloads that include human crews. Whether these are developed by NASA or private companies remains to be seen. Any major budget change like this cause angst among those who feel their efforts for the last several years may have been wasted.
As with the defense budget last year the Administration's plans may in the end not be executed. NASA's projects like many weapon systems evoke emotional responses and may make it hard to end them. This is especially true when the size of the budget as a whole is looked at and NASA needs a small percentage of it to keep doing what they had been.