This is terribly sad.
This is the end of Manned Space Flight for the United States.
If you, or your children, want to see the launch of a manned American bird, you'd better do it immediately, in the remainder of 2009 or 2010. You have nine Shuttle launches left.
NASA has been promised funding sufficient for nine more Shuttle missions to finish the ISS, and that is all. (2009 & 2010). This is essentially funding for the coffin and headstone.
One year from now, we will be back to 1957. The Russians will still have their heavy-lift rockets and Soyuz capsules, and we won't have anything. We'll have to beg/buy rides from Russia to get to the ISS. Should the Russians decide they're not in the mood, they can easily say: "And what are you going to do about it?".
The Russians do not have a good "Partners in Space" history. Remember when the ISS was very nearly lost to [Russian] computer problems, the Russians were swift to blame the Americans for "bad power". When the Soyuz's explosive bolts failed, the Russians blamed the ISS for mysterious "plasma discharges" that, somehow (don't ask me how) damaged explosive bolts.
Now NASA is trying to build its "Ares-1" rocket. Two stages. Its lower stage is a Shuttle SRB (Solid Rocket Booster) with an extra solid segment, which means higher pressures, more joints, and this time the vibration is directly transmitted to the backs of the crew.
(I wish someone would tell me why we're not just using the Saturn V main booster technology for the first stage. It has the advantage of being repeatedly tested and it works. Is it just too easy or something?)
It's revealing to see what former NASA officials say when they are not muzzled anymore:
Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said in a recent speech the projected funding shortfalls threaten America's leadership in manned space flight.
"In a democracy, the proper purpose of the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) is not to find a way to create a Potemkin Village at NASA. It is not to create the appearance of having a real space program without having to pay for it. It is not to specify to NASA how much money shall be allocated for human lunar return by 2020. The proper purpose of the OMB is to work with NASA, as a partner in good government, to craft carefully vetted estimates of what is required to achieve national policy goals. The judgment as to whether the stated goals are too costly, or not, is one to be made by the nation's elected leadership, not career civil service staff.
No one can wrest leadership in space from the United States. We're that good. But we can certainly cede it, and that is the path we are on."
Something like the Ares-1 design has happened before; see the history of the Space Shuttle:
You will find that what Congress/OMB and Obama are doing ia just about precisely what Congress/BoB and Nixon did.
Funding was cut right through the fat, muscle, and into the bone, and the only way NASA could figure out to launch anything was using solid rocket boosters (SRB's), which add significant vibration and which cannot be throttled, or switched off and reignited. Many engineers left NASA when the decision to use SRB's came down.
A stunning quote from one Douglas Cookie, 'Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA HQ', is:
[Cooke] said the biggest single reason he has favored Ares 1 over competing designs is _crew safety_.
"That's in part due to the Ares 1 first stage, an extended five-segment shuttle booster. Two four-segment boosters are used for every shuttle flight and in 125 missions to date - 250 booster flights - only one booster has ever failed, the one that doomed Challenger.
"I personally believe the risk is lower for the crew on this vehicle and that to me is the bigger of the discriminators," Cooke said.
I have news for Mr. Cooke. Many SRB's showed blow-by through the O-rings. Some came within a few seconds of a loss of vehicle. This showed something was very wrong, but NASA began to literally "normal-ize" it; since nothing awful happened, blow-by began to be considered "normal", or at least, "tolerable". The Morton Thiokol engineers were worried sick about it. NASA got "Go Fever" with the Challenger launch and there was enough blow-by to damage the vehicle, and good-bye. And, actually, the two SRB's survived the loss of the Challenger and had to be destroyed by the range safety officer, so he's wrong twice.
NASA also continued to see damage to the heat shield tiles, and again, "normal-ized" it, until a hit on the leading edge of a wing killed Columbia. NASA engineers were concerned about possible damage and asked for photographs to be taken, possibly from DoD sources, but NASA management ... could that have been Mr. Cooke? ... turned them down.
Finally, now it's coming out that the Ares SRB has big vibration problems. Quote, "NASA admitted that this problem is very severe, rating it four out of five on a risk scale". I wonder if Mr. Cooke was aware of this when he said that "crew safety" was his primary concern.
I think Mr. Cooke ought to be put onboard one of the early Ares test flights, with all sorts of sensors wired up to him, to see the effect on humans of severe vibration. (There is no need for brain wave sensors, as there are none present.)
I was born in 1958, as was NASA. I remember that "Star Trek" was on TV when we were launching Gemini and beginning to test Apollo.
Stripping NASA of $3 billion so that it can be given to political groups, for example, to jigger the 2010 Census, is in several ways a terrible waste of needed money. This is short sightedness at its worst.