The president's budget proposal for next year calls for pulling the plug on the Constellation program, with its heavy-lift Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft, in which the space agency already has $9 billion invested. The Constellation program to the moon was to be the first step toward an eventual manned mission to Mars.
The loss of the heavy-lift Ares could be especially critical. Although there has been talk of extending its life, the shuttle program is set to expire after four more trips to the space station, leaving us dependent on an increasingly mercurial Russia to get heavy payloads into orbit. Meanwhile, the Chinese have made no secret of their determination to push ahead with an ambitious manned space program. And there's no question but what both of those countries have as their long-range, but hidden goal, the militarization of space.
Obama's budget does include an increase in NASA funding to $19 billion, including $6 billion to encourage the private sector to develop commercial spacecraft and for NASA to pursue new technology.
The private-sector plan depends heavily on whether aerospace businesses can find some sort of profitable justification for manned flight and doing it without NASA's great reservoir of engineering talent. Just hoping a private company will come along and build a moon rocket is more of a hope than a program.
The NASA route depends on technological breakthroughs in exotic areas like new propulsion systems that could cut the trip to Mars from three months to several days. But these breakthroughs may or may not materialize, even though NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, "We're oh-so-close."
This was all too vague for the Senate space subcommittee, which said NASA needs to go somewhere specific - the moon, Mars, a Martian moon or an asteroid - and come up, in the absence of the Constellation program, with a plan for doing it relatively soon.
The White House has announced plans for Obama to host a high-level conference in Florida, in the Cape Canaveral area, on the next step in space exploration. The White House says the president will unveil an "ambitious plan" for NASA. One hopes it is considerably more ambitious and visionary than hiring the Russians or Chinese to explore space for us.