Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Budget and the Future in Space

Tomorrow is the day for the annual release of the President's budget request for the next fiscal year (2011). This will no doubt intensify the debate over the ballooning federal deficit.

Along with all other federal departments and agencies, NASA and those interested in our future in space are awaiting tomorrow's release. This year more than normal, the budget release will be pivotal in indicating NASA's future direction.

Media reports such as this Washington Post article emphasize the apparent cancellation of the goal of returning to the Moon by 2020 and a historic initiative to enable commercial provision of human transport to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The move to encourage commercial involvement in human spaceflight is to be applauded. (I know. Doesn't this President realize that free enterprise also works on Earth? That's a topic for other posts.)

The apparent cancellation of the lunar goal is disturbing, but the situation is more complex than most media reports imply. (When the NYT and Fox News are echoing each other, you know there's a media echo chamber at work.)

A article, based on internal NASA management documents, reports on plans for an early test (2-3 years) of a Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Vehicle (SDHLV) that would be, relatively speaking, simpler and more affordable to develop than the endangered Ares I/V vehicles currently planned. There are reports that this vehicle would be eventually moved into the stable of commercially provided launch vehicles, perhaps in a similar manner to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) provision of Atlas and Delta rockets and associated launch services.

The report that reaching the Moon by 2020 is off the table is likely true as there is currently no funding for a manned lunar landing vehicle. However, development of an affordable heavy lift launcher, especially if it is commercially managed, may enable a return to the Moon, along with other possible destinations included in the "flexible path" scenario that currently appears to be gaining support.

One media report that does cover the possible heavy lift vehicle development is this BBC article, which includes the role of the "DIRECT" team (some members who are within NASA and industry) who have been independently tweaking old NASA plans for an SDHLV. Here is the DIRECT web site and a Popular Science article describing their role in the debate over our future in space.

Of course, like all of the media reports and commentary, this post may soon be overcome by events, starting with tomorrow's budget release and other forthcoming announcements.

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