President Obama outlined a dramatic new mission for NASA on Monday, getting the agency out of the rocket-launching business in favor of an aggressive expansion of research and development that would steer the agency away from the launch pad and instead put its engineers in the laboratory, where they would design futuristic vehicles capable of going beyond the moon.
As expected, his budget plan would cancel NASA's Constellation program and its goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020. The troubled rocket program, crippled by funding shortfalls and technical problems, ultimately would cost taxpayers at least $11.5 billion as it is, including $2.5 billion to terminate it.
Instead of pursuing Constellation, NASA would pay for commercial rocket companies to resupply the International Space Station over the next decade while its own workers develop new engines and rockets that NASA officials hope will enable a vast expansion of its future manned-space efforts.
"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," said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.
It would be a decade or more, however, before NASA again sends astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, a prospect that is certain to draw strong opposition from NASA's defenders in Congress.
One, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), called the budget a "death march" for American spaceflight.
Bolden said ending Constellation was necessary to ensure NASA had the money to spend nearly $11 billion over the next five years on new technologies, including $3.1 billion to develop heavy-lift rockets that could carry new spacecraft beyond Earth orbit.
Currently, he said, the 5-year-old Constellation program is burning through billions of dollars and falling further behind schedule. The program couldn't get American astronauts back to the moon until at least 2028, he said.
"So as much as we would not like it to be the case . . . the truth is that we were not on a path to get back to the moon's surface," Bolden said.
"And as we focused so much of our effort and funding on just getting to the moon, we were neglecting investments . . . required to go beyond."
Obama's plan calls for NASA to get $19 billion in 2011 -- about $300 million more than this year's budget -- with small annual increases after that.