Obama cancels Moon return project

President Barack Obama has cancelled the American project designed to take humans back to the Moon.

The Constellation programme envisaged new rockets and a new crewship called Orion to put astronauts on the lunar surface by 2020.

But in his federal budget request issued on Monday, Mr Obama said the project was "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation".

It was draining resources from other US space agency activities, he added.

He plans instead to turn to the private sector for launch services.

Constellation was initiated by President George Bush in the wake of the 2003 shuttle accident, which saw seven astronauts lose their lives when their vehicle broke up on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.

The idea was to retire the spaceplane and replace it with a new ship and new rockets capable of sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

But critics claimed the programme was never properly funded, and when it ran into technical difficulties its time schedule began to slip.

Mr Obama is cancelling Constellation even though Nasa has spent some $9bn on the project already.

President's budget request plans an investment of an additional $6bn in Nasa over the next five years - an overall $100bn commitment to the agency (its budget for 2011 would be $19bn).

He wants some of the extra funding to be used to incentivise private companies, to help them to bring forward a new generation of launchers to carry humans into orbit.

As well as being a customer for these rockets, Nasa would also set and oversee standards in the nascent market, especially in matters that concerned crew safety.

In addition, Monday's funding boost would enable America to extend the operation of the International Space Station from 2015 to at least 2020.

The changes fit broadly with ideas put forward by a special panel convened last year by Mr Obama to review US human spaceflight options.

The Augustine committee argued strongly in favour of giving the commercial sector a greater role in the nation's space programme. The panel members thought such an approach could reduce costs and even speed up the adoption of new technologies.


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