Over the weekend, it was widely reported that the Obama Administration has proposed cancelling NASA's next big project, The Constellation Program, which was designed to return humanity to the Moon, but instead, increased NASA's budget by $6 Billion. The official explanation was that Constellation would largely be a repeat of the Apollo program by returning Americans to the moon, and was rejected by an independent review panel. While there has been a considerable amount of press regarding this, it is most likely better for the US space program as a whole.
I was happy to see President Bush announce the Constellation Program, but in the couple of years since its announcement, it's become increasingly clear that this was a project that wasn't going to work in the long run. In the history of space exploration, numerous presidents have used the space program as a way to launch legacies and to bolster public support for their administration, most notably with the Kennedy Administration, as well as the Nixon Administration. Undoubtedly, this was a goal of the second Bush Administration, which faced flagging support as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were getting worse. This sort of support from an administration isn't unwarranted, or really unwelcome, but given the absolute complexity of something such as Apollo or Constellation, there needs to be broad public support and administrative support for the program. This worked extremely well during the 1960s, as politicians were able to use the advances of the Soviet Union as a way to link both spaceflight and military technologies together. If the Russians were able to reach the moon first, they would be perceived as being technologically superior. In a world of unorganized terror and irregular warfare, this threat doesn't exist. While it's clear that Iran and North Korea has experimented with IRBM and ICBM technology, there isn't a race to see who's better. Thus, public and political pressure for a successful moon landing project isn't behind a push to go to the moon, which will hurt the project in numerous ways, such as budget cuts.
Beyond that, however, is the entire purpose of a moon landing program. The Mercury and Gemini programs were both designed with much different criteria in mind: Could humans go to space, and could humans live in space? The successes of both and the subsequent Apollo program indicated yes, making them an unparalleled success. When it came to Apollo, the end goals are more limited: Could humans land on the moon? While Apollo proved that this was true, it was far more limited, with no aftermath plan put into place, and with fewer tangible results that could come out of it. Once humanity reached the moon, public support slowed, and the last three Apollo missions were cancelled, despite the hardware and training that had gone into them. A repeat of Apollo wouldn't prove anything new, other than advancing some of the known technologies. Until a good reason is found to return to the lunar service, it shouldn't be subjected to the constraints of taxpayer whims and political points, and this is what would have happened with Constellation. A return to the moon would be a tremendous boon to the United States, but it would be a superficial one, without real substance.
While this shuts out a lunar moon program on the part of NASA, this does open the doors for private aerospace companies, new and old. Earlier today, NASA announced five companies were receiving large grants, while other companies, such as SpaceX, will be tasked with shuttling people and materials back and forth between the earth and orbit. Private industry will likely be a better choice for space technology, because it is freed from the constraints of public funding and politicians. This doesn't necessarily mean that NASA will be out of the space business either - several programs that will be brought up will be focusing on robotics and orbital stations, as well as investigating new equipment and technology, which will undoubtedly help create a foundation for further exploration to the moon and solar system.
There are some drawbacks to this. It'll take longer, which will push the United States back a bit, and it will place some exploration in the hands of machines, rather than people. That, however, is a smaller price to pay if it helps to put the United States and humanity on track to reach the stars on a bit more of a permanent basis. What I can foresee, is a buildup of additional companies such as SpaceX, which will help to build a large industrial and commercial basis for human habitation in space. That, I believe, is incredibly important, especially given the problems with the economy as of late. This would provide the US with a wholly unique industry, something that is badly needed.
The problems with going to space are complicated, and returning to orbit will be a very different thing after twenty years of depending on the space shuttle. Hopefully, these changes will be the start of new priorities for the space agency, and hopefully, exploration to the Moon and Mars won't be too far behind.