NASA's legacy of extending the idea of manifest destiny to space exploration may be fading into less flashy and more grounded research. A proposed budget makeover would sacrifice manned space flight, the jewel in NASA's crown, while boosting the agency's already substantial research on climate change.
In February, Obama proposed adding a net $6 billion to NASA's budget but killing one of its key projects: the Constellation rocket program. Under the Bush administration, NASA funneled billions of dollars into the program, with the goal of putting another man on the moon by 2020. The program had nostalgic appeal but was also behind schedule and over budget.
In cutting off Constellation's government funding, Obama hopes the private sector will develop its own rocket technology for human space exploration. But the New York Times reported yesterday that companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin are wary of taking on this role without sufficient government backing. Both companies made faulty bets on the commercial space business ten years ago and would require substantive risk-sharing in order to re-launch those projects in full.
Obama has been upfront with his NASA priorities, proposing to scrap the moon mission in order to free up education funds during his presidential campaign. Once submitted to Congress, the NASA portion of his budget quickly drew fire from lawmakers in Florida, Texas, and other NASA-reliant states.
But as the agency's rocket engineers are fretting, its earth scientists are prepping. NASA's earth science team would receive an extra $2.4 billion -- a 62 percent increase -- through 2015 to study changing temperatures, ice coverage, ozone depletion, and atmospheric carbon dioxide. Rather than launching new projects, NASA would revive missions that the Bush administration either stalled or canceled.
This focus on climate change would mark a decided shift in NASA's mission and serve as a reminder of the influence that each administration has on the nation's scientific direction. At the same time, Obama may face a tough crowd speaking at Cape Canaveral on Thursday, given that the base will shed about 9,000 jobs when the Constellation program ends.