Moments ago the Space Shuttle Atlantis left Pad 39A in Florida, making what's likely its last ride into orbit. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the shuttle's 1981 debut — it's been that long since the United States launched astronauts into orbit in a new vehicle — and the final shuttle flight is scheduled for November.
That three-decade-long drought is headed for four. In February, after getting recommendations from an A-list review panel, President Obama submitted a budget to Congress that proposes the cancellation of the Constellation program begun by his predecessor.
So much for NASA's Next Big Thing.
Constellation's Orion crew capsule and Ares rockets were designed to get humans once again beyond Earth orbit, with the first passenger-carrying tests to come in 2015. But the effort was underfunded from the get-go and hindered further as the space agency devoted time and resources to getting the shuttles flying again after the loss of Columbia in 2003.
So instead of continuing to fund an effort that might easily top $100 billion through 2020, the Obama administration now proposes enlisting private industry to develop the next human-rated spacecraft and, in the interim, to rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station once the Space Shuttle program ends. It was not a popular decision among space buffs who grew up reading or watching The Right Stuff.
Against this backdrop, Charles Bolden, a former Marine and four-time shuttle astronaut, came to Boston this week in his new role as NASA administrator.
The main reason for the visit was to kick off the Summer of Innovation, in which space specialists will help engage and train educators to boost students' knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). From what I've seen, the president seems committed to giving STEM education high priority in his administration.
In any case, Bolden took time to give an informal presentation at MIT, which is home (among many other things) to the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium managed by former astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman. The two high-fliers spent many years together in the astronaut corps.
I'd never met Bolden, but he struck me as folksy and engaging. I tried to imagine him locked in tough negotiations at the White House over the future of NASA or going toe to toe with reluctant subordinates. I couldn't — though he certainly has. And while no one expected Bolden to deliver major policy announcements at MIT, he still offered a few insights about where the agency is today and where it's headed.
After ticking off an expected, almost obligatory list of NASA's recent accomplishments (Hubble's 20th anniversary, first light for the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and so forth), Bolden made the point that the agency is on a "transformative path" — one backed by an administration "strongly committed" to the space program.
There's some evidence to back that latter claim. Although calling for Constellation's termination, NASA's proposed $19 billion budget for fiscal 2011 includes healthy increases for space-science programs, particularly the study of Earth from orbit.
Bolden's predecessor, Michael Griffin, had sent shock waves through the space community by waffling on whether NASA would support the International Space Station's operation past 2015, in which case it'd be dumped into the Pacific just five years after getting all the pieces in place. But Bolden says he wants to bring the ISS to full utilization (easier now that it's maintained by a six-person crew) and to operate it at least through 2020.
President Obama has even relented a bit on killing Constellation outright — at a space summit he convened last month in Florida, the president revealed his plan (video clip here) to redirect future human exploration away from the Moon and toward Mars. A key intermediate milestone would be sending astronauts to visit an asteroid. There's even a small silver lining for the axed Constellation program, in that Bolden has been directed to develop a scaled-down version of the Orion crew capsule to serve as an escape vehicle should an emergency arise on the ISS.
As to when all this might come to pass, Bolden isn't working to a fixed timetable. "Maybe as early as 2020 we'll fly another circumlunar mission in some version of Orion," he told the MIT audience. "Maybe around 2025 we'll send someone to chase an asteroid."
As good (or bad) as all that sounds, the nation's space community hasn't entirely bought into the proposed redirections for NASA. Nor has Congress weighed in, let alone approved the proposed budget. Much of the space agency's workforce of 18,000 employees and more than 100,000 contractors are involved in heavy-metal work — building and launching big space machines. How the new "transformative path" will affect NASA's Johnson, Marshall, and Kennedy space centers remains to be seen.