The Obama administration released its plan for NASA's budget in the coming year today, and with it comes an attempt to largely change the goals for NASA's manned spaceflight program. I like the most of the plans for increasing funding for Earth and Planetary sciences, as well as Heliophysics and extending the operational life of the International Space Station. But I am highly skeptical that the plans for giving up on the Constellation program in favor of giving some seed money to small start-up space companies are a good thing.
I'm all for stimulating spaceflight innovation in the private sector, but not at the expense of the existing NASA plans for continued human spaceflight. I would much rather they continue the Constellation program and tack on some additional money to NASA's budget to be used for this X-prize-like private stimulus. Obama's current proposal means we just stop putting people into space using the tried-and-true methods we've been using for the past 49 years, and say "Here's some seed money, private sector. Reinvent the wheel for us while we sit on the sidelines and wait." I'd love to see the private sector come up with a cheaper method of getting people into space. . . but let them do it in parallel and demonstrate that it outclasses what NASA is already using. Yes, this would come down to increasing NASA's budget, but as we both know that ought to happen anyway.
Also, since we are extending the life of the ISS (a good thing), shouldn't we consider extending the life of the Shuttle program as well? The whole idea back in the '60's and '70's was to have a space station and a "shuttle" to ferry people and cargo to/from it. Now that we actually have both in operation, how does it make sense for the U.S. to announce a continued commitment to the ISS, but WITHOUT the ability to ferry either cargo or crew to/from the station at all? Bush's reasoning for cancelling the shuttle program was that we could free up money to use on human spaceflight outside of LEO, and it wouldn't be that big a deal because the ISS would only be around a few more years after the shuttle was retired. Obama is basically proposing we extend the life of the ISS without having the most useful tool for servicing it.
I predict this will only serve to lengthen the amount of time that the U.S. is without the ability to put people into space. Then, at some point, as India, China, and Russia are all able to launch humans into space, the American people will get restless and start to wonder why again did we just give up doing that? Congress will get spurred into action, and the next President will have his or her own new vision for space exploration that essentially returns to the idea of NASA creating and operating (through a big company like Boeing or Lockheed) its own manned spacecraft.
At JSC, in the ISS flight control room, they have several models of Space Station Freedom hanging from the ceiling. Each model looks a little different, and the joke we'd make when giving tours was that "this is the 100th Congress's plan for space station freedom, this is the 101st Congress' plan for space station freedom, this is the 102nd. . .". Just as Bush tried to overhaul the Vision for space exploration 6 years ago, and Obama is doing this now, so it will be overhauled again by the next politician. Sigh.