In Sept. 2010, Congress passed the bill that determined the fate of the National Air and Space Administration (NASA) for the next few decades. Among many things, Congress voted to cancel NASA’s Constellation Program, which would have established a lunar outpost, and ended the Space Shuttle Program, which began in 1972. There are only two space shuttle launches left with the possibility of a third, after which point, the United State will rely on Russia’s Soyuz capsules for access to the International Space Station for the next few years. Then, as stated by the bill, NASA will turn to private commercial space flight companies — such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic — for inexpensive launches to a low Earth orbit.
After many months of discussion and debate within NASA, Congress and the White House, this resolution will allow NASA to spend considerably less money on launches that are thought to be done more easily by the private industry. While this may seem like a radical change for the agency responsible for putting man on the moon just over 40 years ago, NASA has always relied on contracts with commercial companies — such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing — for many of their space flight needs. With the money freed up, NASA plans to turn it efforts toward building larger rockets that will lead the United States past the orbit of the moon, such as a near-Earth asteroid, or even, Mars. The precise destination is still unclear. Meanwhile, China, Japan, India and Russia plan to land humans on the moon by the 2030s.
Critics of the Congressional bill say that, by including the plans to build a larger rocket in NASA’s plan, the money saved by the cancellation Space Shuttle and Constellation Program will exceed the current projections of NASA’s budget. While the plan for NASA is now clear, the appropriation bill that actually sets the official spending levels has not yet been approved. Currently, it is estimated that NASA will get approximately $20 billion per year, or about 0.6 percent of the entire national budget.
NASA has changed considerably since its inception 52 years ago. Its projects are becoming increasingly focused on international partnerships as well as involving increasing proportions of the commercial spaceflight industry. In any case, the agency continues its efforts of exploration and discovery.