NASA Finally Breaks the Budget

The ax finally fell today on NASA's human-spaceflight program. The space agency will no longer fulfill one of the roles it was originally created for: to carry astronauts into earth orbit. Once the space shuttle is mothballed later this year or early next, that job will now fall to commercial companies.

It hard to overstate how big a change this is over the way the space agency has operated in the past, when it controlled every step in the process of designing, building and launching spaceships. Its bureaucracy and its insistence on safety at all costs has added billions to the cost of its missions, and the expense has finally broken the budget. U.S. astronauts on their way to the International Space Station and another missions to what's known as low-earth orbit will soon have to hitch a ride with the Russians, or go on rockets built and maintained by private firms. NASA will still have an oversight role, but it means an end to the practice of issuing reams of regulations governing every single bolt in every single spaceship.

The change was a long time in coming. Ever since the end of the Apollo program, NASA has been struggling to find its feet in human spaceflight. The space shuttle, conceived originally to make access to space cheap, turned out to be a boondoggle—built at great expense to do too much; and it wasn't even safe. The International Space Station may wind up costing $100 billion (much of that borne by other nations), but it houses only a handful of astronauts.

So the Obama administration is cutting the cord. Specifically, it's canceling the Ares I booster and the Orion capsule, which were supposed to replace the Shuttle, and upon which NASA has already spent more than $7 billion. The agency won't be getting out of the people-launching business entirely. It will still develop a big launcher to send people to distant places, like Mars—a task consistent with the space agency's core mission (to inspire), but one that private industry isn't likely to take up anytime soon. Ironically, NASA already had a deep-space booster back in the 1970s: the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts on their way to the moon, but which the agency canceled in part to make room in its budget for the shuttle. Had NASA made better decisions back then, we might now be mining the moon for hydrogen and helium-3, a nuclear fuel. Or at least we would have saved a lot of money.

The winners in this announcement are the commercial firms, such as Orbital Science Corp and SpaceX, who are building the ships that NASA will use, and the scientists who have been sending robots into space for a relative pittance and getting back incredible results. None of their work is essential to the well-being of the nation, but it's cool. Robotic probes found out recently that the moon we've thought for decades was as dry as a bone may have water—lots of water—just below the surface, a few feet from the still-fresh footsteps of Apollo astronauts.