History of manned space flight

Manned space flight began with the Mercury space program which ran from 1959 to 1963 and had the goal of putting a man into orbit. The Gemini program ran between the Mercury and Apollo programs and was a series of 10 flights in 1965 and 1966. The purpose of the Gemini program was to develop the technologies necessary for the Apollo space program. The Apollo program had the goal of landing on the moon. Between July 20, 1969 and December 1972, six flights went to the moon with 12 men walking on the surface of the moon. The next program was Skylab. Skylab was a first attempt at a small orbiting space station. After a few missions where spacecraft docked with the structure and astronauts remained on board, no missions were launched to dock with it beyond 1974.

Next, NASA decided to build a space station to remain in low earth orbit instead of attempting to build a lunar base. To carry the components of the station into orbit, NASA designed the Space Shuttle. A total of 5 shuttles were built which flew a combined total of 134 flights with the final flight scheduled for early 2011. The Space Transportation System (STS) began to construct the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998. The ISS is mostly complete and awaiting only a few small components. The ISS is scheduled to remain in orbit until at least 2020.

After the STS space shuttle system is retired, the United States will no longer have a method of reaching the International Space Station. To alleviate this problem and plan the future of manned space flight, President Bush called for and congress authorized the Vision for Space Exploration in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. This vision was eventually called the Constellation program and had a series of vehicles which would provide the capability to get people to the ISS, and then eventually back to the moon and to Mars.

The vehicles of the Constellation program consisted of capsules to hold the crew and launch vehicles capable of carrying those capsules to low earth orbit, to the moon, and to Mars. The Ares I, Saturn V, and Ares V vehicles were proposed to carry those capsules and are shown below with their lift capability compared to the Shuttle. The Ares I would have carried the Orion capsule to the ISS, while the Saturn V and Ares V would have provided heavy lift capability for the heavier loads of the other missions.

Lockheed Martin was selected as the prime contractor on the project on August 31, 2006. The design they proposed was similar to the previous Apollo program, but with new technology and capabilities to meet the required mission for each variant of the given vehicle. One capsule was designed to ferry men back and forth from the ISS and had the required docking components. The moon landing version was proposed to have additional components similar to the Apollo moon missions. Initially, the hope was that the Orion component, which was the capsule to take astronauts to the Space Station, would be operational by 2012 and come online as the Space Shuttle was leaving service. The last estimates of the completion were 2015 to 2017.


Total US Spending

The total US budget has grown each year since NASA was established as a separate budgetary item in 1958. In recent years, that budget has approached 4 trillion dollars. While the budget has seen steady growth over the years, it has grown at an increasing pace in the last few decades.


NASA Spending

Spending on NASA has grown along with the total US spending. However, that growth has not been as quick or as steady. The chart below shows that there was a spike in funding just after NASA was started that accounted for the Gemini program and the creation of the Apollo program. Funding then decreased through the 1970's and increased in the 1980's with the creation of the Space Shuttle program and the Internation Space Program. Funding was slighlty increased in recent years as NASA ended the Shuttle program and simultaneously started up the Constellation program. NASA does more than space flight and a great deal of this funding went to atmospheric development.


NASA as a Percentage of Spending

In NASA's early days, funding for the administration was close to 4.5% of total US spending. As the Apollo and Gemini programs winded down, funding leveled out around 1%. That amount has slowly decreased to 0.5% of total US spending. In NASA's early days its main focus was on space flight, today NASA covers space and atmospheric flight.


President Bush's Plan

On January 14, 2004 President Bush spoke at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C.. In that speech, he outlined a three phase plan for the future of manned space flight and NASA. 

  1. The shuttle would be used to complete the International Space Station by 2010 and then it would be retired
  2. A new "Crew Exploration Vehicle" would be developed to be tested by 2008 and flown by 2014
  3. Return to the moon with robots by 2008, with people by 2015, and with extended settlements by 2020

President Bush also proposed that once a moon base was established, it could be used as a stepping stone for launches to Mars and other targets.


The Constellation Program

The result of President Bush's plan was the Constellation program. Within that program were varying vehicles to hold the crew and equipment and varying rockets to lift the vehicles into the proper orbits. Of these vehicles, the Orion was the first to be developed as a vehicle to return to the space station and eventually to the moon.


President Obama and Constellation

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Senator Obama's campaign literature stated that he would delay the program by 5 years and use that money to funds education initiatives. As the campaign progressed, Senator Obama professed his support for the program when rallying in Florida near the Kennedy Space Station. After winning the election, President Obama was again critical of the program, stating that it was over budget and behind schedule.


The Augustine Committee

On May 7, 2009 the Obama administration announced that they would be launching a committee to investigate the best path for the future of human space flight. The committee which was formed to complete this task was named the Augustine Committee after it's chair Norman Augustine. Although he had previously been a CEO for Lockheed Martin, Augustine was a well known critic of the Constellation program, causing many to assume that the Obama administration was merely seeking scientific cover for the cancellation of the program.

However, when the committee issued its findings, it did not make recommendations on the Constellation program. The committee merely concluded that NASA was on an unsustainable path. It found that NASA's budget allowed it to either run a major manned program or engineer a new one, but not do both at the same time without the addition of roughly $3 Billion dollars annually until the end of the shuttle program.


Cancellation of the Constellation Program

On February 1, 2010 President Obama's budget was released for 2011 and funding for the program was not in the budget. The President had decided to extend the International Space Station from its previous deadline of 2015 to 2020. Although this leaves the United States with no method of reaching the Space Station between 2011 and 2020, the President has advocated that the US pay the Soviet Union to carry US astronauts to the station, and then allow private companies to develop a vehicle to carry the astronauts.

To reach the ISS, the US must now purchase rides from the Russians on their Soyuz vehicles at a tune of $50 million dollars per person per trip. These Soyuz vehicles carry 3 personnel to the station, remain docked to the station for prolonged periods of time and then carry the astronauts back at the end of the mission.

The Obama administration has called for the continuation of the Orion capsule to be used as a lifeboat on the station to provide an emergency return to earth. The vehicle would fly to the station, dock automatically, and then remain there in case of emergency. At its current pace, the orion capsule would not be complete until at least 2015. This would give the program only 5 years of use before the end of the space station program in 2020. The use of the capsule as a life boat is also pointless as the Russian Soyuz vehicles already act in that capacity.


NASA as a Muslim Outreach Program

In June of 2010, NASA administrator Charles Bolden spoke with Al Jazeera television in an interview about space policy. In that interview, administrator Bolden spoke about the priorities for NASA and listed as one of the most important functions of NASA to be an outreach program for muslim countries around the world.

Al Jazeera: Administrator of NASA Charles Bolden, thank you very much for being here.

Administrator Bolden: Thanks so much for allowing me to be here, its exciting for me to be here.

Al Jazeera: Well it's fantastic having you on "Talk to Al Jazeera." I know it's very rude to ask this of a guest, but my first question to you is "why are you here in the region?"

Administrator Bolden: I appreciate you asking the question, I am here in the region ... it's sort of the first anniversary of President Barack Obama's visit to Cairo and his speech there when he gave what has now become known as Obama's Cairo initiative, where he announced that what he really wanted was for this to be a new beginning in the relationship between the United States and the muslim world.

When I became the NASA administrator ... or before I became the NASA administrator, he charged me with three things. One was that he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math. He wanted me to expand our international relationships and third and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the muslim world and engage much more with dominantly muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contributions to science and engineering, science and math and engineering.

A couple of weeks later, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about the statements and stated that NASA Administrator Bolden had misspoken. When asked if the President had cleared up the mission of NASA, Mr Gibbs said no. When asked if someone at the White House had spoken to NASA, Mr Gibbs said that people at the White House spoke to people at NASA all the time.


A Bold New Course for NASA

In April of 2010, President Obama spoke at the Kennedy Space Center about the future of the space program and to lay out what he believed should be the new course for NASA. He was critical of NASA policies of the past and stated that previous administrations had failed to set clear, achievable goals and to then fund those goals.


[1] Website: NASA Article: President Bush Offers New Vision For NASA Author: NASA Accessed on: 04/20/2011