According to the Obama administration, the project to return humans to the moon is at an end.
More information on the NASA budget for 2011 suggests that the Obama administration will request no money for the Aries I or Aries V rockets to return to the moon, no money for lunar landers or lunar rovers, and no plans for any human space activities other than continuing to occupy the International Space Station until 2020.
The decision to keep the International Space Station alive and well until 2020 is new. That had been a question mark until recently, with the Space Station originally set to be deorbited in 2015.
The one significant shift in NASA plans is to use commercial rockets to take astronauts to and from the space station, rather than use a NASA rocket such as the Space Shuttle.
So, this is what you have to look forward to in terms of human spaceflight for the next 10 years.
Now, Congress still has the power to override the recommendations of the Obama administration. They can continue to demand work on a moon base, and they can appropriate money for it. If they choose to do so, then the President, of course, has the option of accepting or vetoing this legislation. So, we do not yet know what the final outcome will be, but we know what the President is aiming for.
I cannot complain about these results.
I have argued for years that NASA should get out of the business of building and launching rockets and executing its own space projects and, instead, offer prizes and other forms of support for private companies to carry out these objectives. The plan to establish some sort of competition for private companies to carry astronauts to and from the station, and to award lucrative government contracts to the companies that succeed in meeting this challenge, fits that model quite well.
I think it will significantly lower the cost of getting people into space, and result in more money being put into human space flight as these private companies have the option of seeking revenue outside of the government that NASA projects do not have. This includes the options as mundane as putting advertisements on the sides of rockets like giant billboards to carrying non-government passengers to non-government destinations in space such as Bigalow's private space stations.
While the taxpayer dollars spend on space development go down, private dollars spent on space development go up. And if the latter go up more than the former go down (and to the degree that the money on both sides is spent more efficiently) we get more space development, but with less of a strain on the tax payers.
In developing near-earth space - and in particular in developing it commercially - people are going to start to look for two things in abundance; energy and materials. Launching these materials from Earth is expensive, so there will be a drive to look for cheaper alternatives. Orbiting space power stations that can transmit power to orbiting customers will be one possibility. Orbiting manufacturing centers that can take materials harvested from asteroids and turn them into useful products will be another.
We can expect some resistance to these changes. There are entrenched groups who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, and those who have a habit of thinking in terms of government space projects and cannot yet imagine an alternative paradigm. I do not see much call to resist them, however.
From one perspective, it can easily be seen as an attempt to preserve the current status (minus the space shuttle) until such time as the Space Station itself becomes obsolete and the last elements of manned space flight is deorbited into the Pacific. However, hopefully, what we are seeing is a shift away from government astronauts travelling to government space stations to one in which private citizens are visiting and utilizing private space resources.
Well, there is that hope.