President Obama's new plan for NASA has been much reported on in the last few days, for example in this commentary at the Washington Post. The decision to cancel the "Constellation" program seems to have come as a surprise to many people, but it's exactly the sort of bold move that many of us have been calling for for some time now. In an era where China and Russia have national programs with successful human spaceflight behind them, while India, Japan, Europe, Brazil, some smaller nations and many private companies already have their own orbital or suborbital capabilities some of which could be extended to human spaceflight, some already announced, developing yet another rocket for travel from Earth's surface seemed stupendously pointless for a NASA that could do so much more good elsewhere.
Furthermore, despite that cancellation, the administration's proposed NASA budget includes a sizable increase over the next few years, something that was sorely missing in the recent past where grand plans were talked about without any substantial funding to support them. The new "flexible path", outlined in the recent Augustine human spaceflight review eschews picking individual destinations for humans; the idea instead is to expand our capabilities to do whatever it is we choose to do in space. That means helping to make access to space easier and cheaper for everybody - robots or humans. We want to open a frontier. If the time comes that we really need to pick a destination for something important, a space colony say, then a flexible collection of technologies for access to space and doing things in space will make that all the easier.
Almost a year ago, Buzz Aldrin and colleagues posted a proposal for substantial reform in US Space policy, specifically suggesting distinguishing "exploration" activities and "development" activities. I commented on the proposal here. They argued for a separate "Department of Space" to work with private companies on opening up near-space with technology-development funding, but it looks like the Obama administration is giving NASA the job to do that directly. I think that's a reasonable step for now.
And almost exactly a year ago, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson similarly argued that NASA should get out of low Earth orbit, again distinguishing exploration from development.
Buzz and Neil were just echoing my comments to the National Academies Space Studies Board, sent in January last year:
To some degree “civil space program” makes no more sense than “civil land program”, “civil air program”, or “civil ocean program”, and there is no overarching rationale for its long-term existence as something distinct and separate from the nation’s general economic and other activities. Much of “civil space” - communications and remote-sensing activities in the main - is already largely integrated with the general economy and rarely considered by the general public as something markedly separate. That said, there will always be some sort of boundary between “near space” and “deep space” where normal economic activity fades off and only rare and extraordinary government-sponsored activity makes any sense. The goal of the commercial space sector should of course be to make money in a normal economic fashion within that “near space” arena. The goals of government civil space agencies should be (1) to clearly identify “deep space” projects worthy of funding and to pursue them, (2) to identify and fund technology areas that will help expand the boundaries of “near space”, and help broaden national and international normal economic activities within the near space arena, and (3) to, at a reasonable level, identify and fund worthy “infrastructure” projects within the economic “near space” arena that help to facilitate economic and other activities, whether in space or on Earth. It might make most sense to split these 3 distinct goals among three separate departments or agencies.
Great minds, I guess :)