Rumors are abound that Obama's space policy shift is massive. The new themes of his policy: no new moon missions by 2020, Ares will be scrapped, NASA will depend on private commercial companies for transport to space, and a renewed emphasis on space science. Obama has managed to one thing right, but there are some serious problems with this supposed shift.
Space Science is not human spaceflight. NASA was great when it focused on technical goals. NACA, NASA's predecessor, it was said focused on doing the research that no one else wanted to do in aviation. NASA continued that tradition to a certain extent by focusing on hard concrete technical goals in going to the moon. I think NASA's ultimate failure was in failing to do the necessary research in getting to the moon cheaply so that private companies and individuals could take over. They got to the moon OK. They just didn't do it in a way that was worthwhile or useful in terms of engineering research. One of the great things about Bush's VSE is it got NASA to start thinking about hard concrete technical goals again. This was in contrast to the obsession that it had for years with space science. As much as I like science experiments like testing how old men sag in space, I think the billions spent at NASA are better spent elsewhere. Obama's re-emphasis on space science I think couldn't come at a worse time. It will let the agency sink back into that floating abyss of space science once again.
If not the moon -then what? At least with the VSE the agency had a clearly defined purpose. Without it, NASA exists in that strange void that it has inhabited ever since the Apollo program ended. Just how much space science in low earth orbit does Obama really think we can do anyways? It's ridiculous to have to ask the question, but many American's will once again, just what is NASA around for? NASA spent 20 years trying to find a purpose and came up with nothing. VSE was the cure to a serious problem.
That being said, outsourcing the orbital launch side of NASA makes sense. It has never made sense for NASA to be in the crew transport business. There are several rocket launch systems in operation that have proven to be cheaper than the shuttle ever was. A good argument can be made that private commercial launch companies could man rate such a system for a lower cost than NASA's Ares launch system would eventually burn into the American taxpayer's wallet. Was this the right moment to do it? I suppose an argument could be made that the Ares development was already well underway and passed the point where it was probably cheaper to just finish it. I think though in the end the extra costs will be worth the benefits of getting NASA out of a business it shouldn't have been in in the first place.
There's no way to know whether Obama's actual space policy will prove to be as bad as it seems. If it does in fact turn NASA into the shapeless, aimless, pointless mass it seems they want it to be the one solstice we can take is at least the private commercial launch market might see a significant expansion. This could be a good day for Economic Liberty.