The opponents of president Barack Obama's NASA flexible path plan won a victory last week when the head of state resurrected the cancelled Orion crew exploration vehicle - albeit a scaled-down version. Obama's flexible path, announced on 1 February, abandoned the Moon mission-capable manned Orion, but the president has now opted for a low Earth orbit-only escape capsule version to stave off Congressional pressure. The move came days after the president held talks with senators from Colorado, the state where Orion's prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems is headquartered. Obama's plan has suffered 10 weeks of vitriolic attacks from both his own party and Republicans. These politicians want a clear plan for human exploration to the Moon and beyond.

To date, Obama has technology programmes and vague dates and destinations. The flexible path was created because NASA's budget has been flat for the last 20 years. If Congress chooses it can approve its own space programme but Obama still has to sign it into law. If both sides are serious about US Moon bases 20 years from now they have to agree a plan that can survive different administrations. Otherwise the US space programme will wither under decades of internecine warfare that will give leadership of the high frontier to China. Obama came to office promising a new politics and space could be the acid test for exactly that.

Source: Flight International