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What is NASA's Future?
A reporter photographs a mockup of the Crew Dragon at the SpaceX rocket factory in Hawthorne, Calif., 2018. SpaceX plans to use the spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts to the ISS for the first time since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011. David McNew/Getty Images

During his first term in the early 2000s, President George W. Bush laid out an ambitious plan for NASA's future. He planned to replace the aging space shuttles with a new program, Constellation, that NASA administrator Michael Griffin described as "Apollo on steroids." Bush aimed to have U.S. astronauts return to the moon in the 2020s [source: Lewis].

But after Barack Obama took office in 2009, he pointed NASA in a different direction. After a commission of experts found that the Constellation program was behind schedule and exceeding its budget, Obama decided to cancel the program, and abandon the planned moon visits. Instead, he wanted the agency to aim for even more ambitious goals of landing astronauts on a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, and reaching Mars in the 2030s. To that end, NASA embarked upon a new plan to develop the Orion crew capsule, a portion of Constellation that was kept, and to develop a massive new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) [sources: Lewis, Wall].

The end of the shuttle program in 2011 put NASA in a bind, because it didn't yet have a manned spacecraft program to replace it. U.S. astronauts were compelled to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft at more than $80 million per seat [source: Warner]. But private sector companies soon stepped in to fill some of the gap left by the shuttle program's demise. In 2012, a robotic SpaceX Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to fly a cargo mission to the ISS [source: Howell].

The privatization of space travel that began under Obama seems likely to continue under President Donald Trump, in part because the cost of launching a commercial robotic vehicle into orbit is about a fifth of the $1 billion that a shuttle launch cost [source: Mack]. Private space companies SpaceX and Boeing are planning to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS in 2019, in what will be the first manned launches from U.S. soil since the shuttle program's conclusion [source: Reints]. That could signal the start of a new era for NASA, in which it relies on commercial space companies for routine missions and conserves its resources for the biggest, most adventurous quests.

At a 2018 gathering of present and past NASA officials, Trump administration NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine pledged that the agency that first reached the moon would continue to push the envelope in the 21st century by returning to the moon and aiming for Mars.

"A lot of us were not even born when all of that [Apollo] took place, and the visions that have come since then have not always materialized," Bridenstine said. "But because those visions existed, we at this point in history have more opportunity to do more than ever before, " [source: Dean].

Last editorial update on Oct 12, 2018 07:54:36 pm.

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