Will We Ever Send Another American Into Space?

Today in Florida, President Obama will announce his new goals for the NASA space program. Robots will go to space instead of humans. And Americans may never walk on the Moon again. But is that a bad thing?

UPDATE: Obama's speech has concluded. Speech highlights are here.

The new NASA budget

In February, Obama announced the new budget for NASA, which involved cutting the Constellation "humans on the Moon" program. It also outlined ways that NASA would retire its human space travel projects, outsourcing those to private companies like SpaceX. But it also fattened up NASA's research budget considerably, allocating billions of dollars for robots to explore the solar system and pave the way for a Mars colony. (You can read a detailed analysis of that budget here.)

Astronaut Neil Armstrong says this is "devastating"

Astronaut Neil Armstrong has just come out vehemently opposing Obama's plans. In an open letter to the president, he wrote:

Although some of these proposals have merit, the accompanying decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating.

America's only path to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station will now be subject to an agreement with Russia to purchase space on their Soyuz (at a price of over 50 million dollars per seat with significant increases expected in the near future) until we have the capacity to provide transportation for ourselves. The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President's proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.

It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded.

For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature. While the President's plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.

However, other astronauts like Sally Ride and Buzz Aldrin have been very vocal in their support for Obama's new goals for NASA.

Can Constellation be saved?

At stake is whether America will continue putting humans into space, which puts the Constellation program front and center of the debate.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Congress wants to save NASA's existing exploration program, called Constellation, which was expected to produce 25,000 jobs and more than $60 billion in contractor revenue over its lifetime.

As originally conceived, Constellation was a $100 billion project to take astronauts into orbit, and later to deploy next-generation rockets and landers to explore the moon and, eventually, pave the way for manned exploration of Mars.

The White House believes the Constellation program will take too long and that a fresh approach is required. Lawmakers say they are skeptical of the president's plan to entrust core functions of the space program to untested start-up companies.

NASA chief Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, said Mr. Obama's visit to Florida would persuade doubters that "he is dedicated to exploration and human space flight" and "committed to a vibrant future" for NASA.

The president also plans to provide details on a few concessions, such as retaining a small portion of the Constellation program, as well as announcing that workers who lose their jobs when the space shuttle retires will be eligible for retraining and other benefits, according to people familiar with the matter.

The White House responds

Yesterday in a press conference Robert Gibbs told reporters who asked about Neal Armstrong's criticisms:

An independent commission was formulated to study where the [space] program was, whether it was capable of fulfilling what it said it was going to do. The commission — and, again, an independent commission — came back and said that was un-executable, not going to happen. What the President has done is put in place something that is sustainable, that will return astronauts and rockets to space, increase our investment in cutting-edge research and innovation, and provide us the best opportunities.

You can listen to Obama announcing his NASA goals live at 2:50 EDT here.

Additional research from Andrew Liptak.