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NASA's Ares I-X test rocket, intended for moon missions, launches from Florida on October 28, 2009.

Photograph by Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published February 1, 2010

If U.S. astronauts land on the moon again before 2020, it won't be aboard a NASA spacecraft.

The space agency's 2011 budget, released today, reveals plans to scrap the Constellation program, including the rockets and spacecraft that NASA has been developing over the past four years to replace its aging space shuttle fleet.

Constellation's demise would mean that NASA will have no plans for manned space flight beyond the final shuttle launch in fall 2010. Instead the U.S. will have to rely on other governments, such as existing Russian craft, to ferry people to the International Space Station.

The news has actually been expected since last September, when an independent panel known as the Augustine Committee determined that Constellation would require large budget increases to land even a handful of astronauts back on the moon before 2020.

U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to scrap the program is based on Constellation being "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies," according to a statement posted on the White House Office of Management and Budget Web site.

No Moon Mission, But More Money for NASA

When former U.S. President George W. Bush announced the Constellation program in 2005, the plan included designs for a new launch vehicle and crew capsule, a new moon rover, and eventual construction of a moon base at one of the lunar poles. (See pictures of the planned Constellation spacecraft.)

Since then NASA has flight tested the Ares I-X rocket, built a full-size moon buggy prototype, and crashed a probe into the moon in search of water to sustain a lunar outpost.

But even with the loss of resources already poured into Constellation, NASA's new proposed budget would see the space agency get more funding than it did in 2010.

As of 2011, NASA would receive an additional six billion dollars over the next five years, officials announced, for a grand total of a hundred billion dollars by 2015.

"This budget gives us a road map to even more historic achievements, as it spurs innovation, employs Americans in exciting new jobs, and engages people around the world," NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said at a press conference today.

The money saved by halting Constellation would instead be used to fund robotic space missions, to help commercial companies develop manned spacecraft, and to develop new engine technologies that could eventually take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit and into deep space.

"Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year, people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the moon, asteroids, and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of firsts, and imagine all of this being done collaboratively with nations around the world," Bolden said. "That's what the President's plan for NASA will enable."

NASA "More Sustainable" Without Moon Missions

Responding to initial reports of the budget changes leaked last week, Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a former astronaut, wrote in a statement that the Obama Administration is "replacing lost shuttle jobs in Florida too slowly, risking U.S. leadership in space to China and Russia, and relying too heavily on unproven commercial companies."

Florida Representative Suzanne Kosmas also condemned the White House's decision, saying in a statement that "the President's proposal lacks a bold vision for space exploration and begs for the type of leadership that he has described as critical for inspiring innovation for the 21st century."

Meanwhile, supporters argue that the new budget is more realistic and creates better opportunities for advancing space exploration.

"I think it puts us on a much more sustainable path than we've been on for the past ten years," Ray Williamson, executive director of the space advocacy group Secure World Foundation, told National Geographic News.

And former astronaut Buzz Aldrin said in a statement that he strongly endorses NASA's new direction. (Related: "Buzz Aldrin, First Man (to Pee) on the Moon, Sounds Off.")

"As an Apollo astronaut, I know the importance of always pushing new frontiers as we explore space," Aldrin said.

"The truth is that we have already been to the moon—some 40 years ago. A near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster is just what our nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century."

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