President Obama recently outlined his plan for the future of NASA and it includes an increase in funding. However, the areas where the President wants to spend money has not made everyone happy. By increasing funds, the President does seem committed to the concept of space exploration. The challenge is that future innovation is highly speculative and can be approached in a variety of different ways. Obama will likely not be in office when some of his proposed ideas come to fruition. However, he may create programs that build enough momentum to sustain themselves through to completion. With that in mind, here is a brief overview of Obama's NASA plan.
Choosing to discontinue
People have known for a number of years that the Space Shuttle program would end sometime in 2010 or soon after. The plan was for the Constellation program to provide continuity into the future. However, the President has chosen to discontinue this program, as it is reportedly behind and over budget. The Constellation program was supposed to provide a future vehicle and perhaps return the United States to the moon. Now, the United States must rely on Russia to get astronauts to the International Space Station. Some famous astronauts voiced their displeasure at the President cancelling this program, but for now he will end Constellation. This will mean some immediate job loss, but the President's hope is that longer-term solutions will yield better results.
A long-term vision
The President's plan is to spend more money on research and development, in order to come up with newer ways to propel people into deeper space. This may include a trip to Mars in the next few decades. Research and development does provide people with the opportunity to imagine new possibilities, but sometimes it can also be a major money drain if there is no clear direction. In addition, it makes some politicians nervous because their current constituents may lose jobs in favor of future work that is yet to be determined. Therefore, NASA and their industry partners have mixed feelings about the President's priorities.
Finally, the President would like to utilize certain commercial solutions for tasks such as propelling people into orbit. Again, this idea may work but solutions will not necessarily present themselves in a short period of time. In addition, companies are driven by profit, which means that it may be hard to get many organizations that will expend huge amounts of money on research and development if future profits are uncertain. While some people may lament governmental spending patterns, it could be argued that space exploration of the past was accomplished because politicians could convince taxpayers that winning the "space race" was worth the cost. Companies cannot always convince stockholders of the same idea. For now, the philosophy of space exploration is changing, and it will likely be decades before people can evaluate the wisdom of President Obama's choices.