Washington - US President Barack Obama is essentially grounding efforts to return astronauts to the moon and instead is sending Nasa in new directions with roughly $6-billion more, according to officials familiar with the plans.
A White House official confirmed published reports on Thursday that when next week's budget is proposed, Nasa will get an additional $5,9-billion over five years. Some of that money would extend the life of the International Space Station to 2020. It also would be used to entice companies to build private spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the space station after the space shuttle retires, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The money in the president's budget is not enough to follow through with Nasa's plan to for flights to the moon, which had been initiated by President George Bush and has already cost $9,1-billion.
It all comes down to money. The six-year-old Bush plan sputtered when promised budget increases didn't materialise. And now money is a big consideration in Nasa's latest shift in focus.
A new direction for Nasa has been on hold for several months while an independent commission studied options and the White House weighed them. Obama's choice will be made clear on Monday, when he releases his 2011 budget proposal.
"It certainly appears that the Bush moon mission not going to be included" in future funding, said a senior Nasa official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk about the plans.
Space policy scholar John Logsdon, who was on an Obama space campaign advisory committee, said Obama is adopting the preferred option of a White House-appointed outside panel of experts last year. That concept includes reliance on a commercial spaceship, a space station that functions for five more years than planned, and a "flexible path" for human space exploration. That might mean trips to a nearby asteroid, a Martian moon or a brief visit to the moon, instead of the Bush plan for a moon base by the end of the decade.
"What kills the moon mission is the decision to extend the space station to 2020," Logsdon said. That means the Bush goal of "moon by 2020 is dead. We can't afford using the station for five more years and going to the moon."
While the Constellation moon program "is dead, exploration is not dead and that's really important," Logsdon said.
Already, proponents of the moon mission and thousands of workers in space centres in Florida, Alabama and Texas are upset. Congressional officials in those states have denounced such ideas and some of them sit on key committees where they could fight Obama's plans. For example, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida chairs the space subcommittee in the Senate. And the chairwoman of the House space subcommittee, Republican Gabrielle Giffords, is married to a space shuttle astronaut.
In a statement, Republican Suzanne Kosmas of Florida said Obama's proposal "would leave Nasa with essentially no program and no timeline for exploration beyond Earth's orbit."
The budget numbers were first reported this week by the Orlando Sentinel and Florida.
The Bush moon plan was announced after the 2003 Columbia accident in which seven astronauts died when the shuttle broke apart as it returned to Earth. A special investigative panel said Nasa needed a new goal, and in January 2004, Bush proposed the return to the moon. It would have involved the Ares I rocket, carrying astronauts in a capsule called Orion. Another Ares spacecraft would carry heavier cargo.
So far Nasa has spent $3,5-billion on Ares I and $3,7-billion on Orion and nearly $2-billion on other moon mission work. - Sapa-AP