The US space programme is in turmoil. President Obama's plans to axe the Moon-return programme, retire the Space Shuttle and privatise low-Earth orbit transport may make budgetary sense, but Congress is borderline apoplectic that NASA could be reduced to relying on Russian Soyuz flights until 2016 - and then buying seats as if it were chartering aircraft.

This, from the nation that conquered the Moon.

Back in 2005, things looked brighter. After Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, it was decided to retire the Shuttle fleet in 2010 and switch to NASA's proposed Orion crew exploration vehicle to fly to the International Space Station from 2012. Orion was always a challenge but technology problems compounded by budget cuts meant that by 2009 the plan was too ambitious.

But Obama's plan seems woefully under-ambitous. Private transport will, at best, recreate Soyuz, and talk of the Moon and beyond is a vague vision.

The reality is that, when Shuttle goes, capabilities will whither. If Congress wants to a bigger vision and the technological capability to back it up, it's got to put up a lot more cash.

It should. On 12 April 2011, when we mark the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, the words of another Democratic party president - long on vision and big in budget - will surely be remembered: "We do it...because it is hard."

Source: Flight International