Whither the “Vision for Space Exploration” after Six Years?


President Bush announcing the "Vision for Space Exploration" at NASA Headquarters on January 14, 2004.

It might not be the nice round number that we are used to commemorating but today, January 14, 2010, marks the sixth anniversary of the announcement of the “Vision for Space Exploration.” Six years ago this morning President George W. Bush journeyed across town to make a sweeping policy decision at NASA Headquarters that called for humans to reach for the Moon and Mars during the next thirty years.

As stated at the time, the fundamental goal of this vision was to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program. In support of this goal, the U.S. president announced that the nation would:

  • Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond;
  • Extend human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations;
  • Develop the innovative technologies, knowledge, and infrastructures both to explore and to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and
  • Promote international and commercial participation in exploration to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests.

In so doing the president called for completion of the International Space Station and retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet by 2010. Resources expended there could then go toward creating the enabling technologies necessary to return to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

Artist conception of Ares V (left) and Ares I (right), the proposed replacement vehicles for the Space Shuttle.

So where are we after six years of effort since this announcement? NASA moved out to develop an architecture that has been named the Constellation program, consisting of two new launch vehicles (one for crew and a heavy lifter for equipment and cargo), a crew capsule, and a lunar lander. 

Even before the presidential election of 2008, however, it had become highly uncertain that the initiative as announced would be realized. Virtually no political will existed in the Bush administration to make it a reality—certainly not much additional funding was forthcoming—and after President Barack Obama took office in January 2009 he decided to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to review the program and make recommendations. While that panel’s report was submitted to the White House last fall, it has yet to lead to any policy pronouncements. There is, of course, a growing concern that the Constellation program is not sustainable because of the pressures of the budget, technology, and time. It appears increasingly that the “Vision for Space Exploration” could well follow the path of the aborted Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) announced with great fanfare in 1989 but quietly ended in the early 1990s.

The NASA budget proposal for the Vision for Space Exploration, known as the "sand chart." Few believed this a reasonable approach when unveiled in 2004; virtually no one believes it realistic in 2010.

The question is: if not this “Vision for Space Exploration” then what for human spaceflight in the future? Indeed, whither the “Vision for Space Exploration?” We shall see what happens. It is appropriate to focus on this issue again after six years. How do you feel about all of this?

This entry was posted in History, Lunar Exploration, Politics, Space and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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