Astronaut Joseph R. Tanner on a support mission to the International Space Station in 2006.

Waving goodbye? (Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper / NASA)

By Adam Frank

Its been more than 100 years since a young Robert Goddard, the man destined to be the father of modern rocket science, climbed high into the branches of a tree on his family's farm and was struck with a vision that defined his life and our future.

It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet.

Yesterday, with the release of the Obama administration's new budget for NASA that dream, and our future in space, took a decisive step toward an unfortunate but necessary realism.

Forty years ago the United States won the space race and achieved the archetypical dream of walking upon another world. Then, in the face of an unpopular war and looming budget deficits, almost immediately we abandoned pursuing the dream of becoming a space-faring race. Instead we focused on the exploitation of Near-Earth Orbit -- the relatively thin shell of space surrounding the planet's surface. For those who dreamed of manned missions to Mars and the continued human exploration of the solar system, thirty years of the Space Shuttle -- for all its technological marvel -- seemed like a poor substitute. And while the International Space Station showed us grand architecture floating above the planet's blue curve, few scientists were ever enthusiastic about it as a platform for space science or a replacement for manned journeys to the planets.

Meanwhile our robot proxies -- ungainly boxes of detectors, circuits and antennas -- have made voyages of unparallelled discovery. The seemly unstoppable Mar's Rovers, the hardy, versatile probes orbiting Jupiter and Saturn and the intrepid deep space missions photographing asteroids are all testaments to the exploding frontiers NASA has opened on the solar system. At the same time the ongoing program of orbiting observatories gave us breathtaking images of, and insights into, the entire Universe. These unmanned missions all came at a fraction of the cost of a manned program stalled a few hundred miles above the Earths surface.

The new NASA budget Obama has put forward cancels the costly Constellation program designed to return to the Moon (a hold over from the previous Bush administration). Constellation was trumped as a first step to Mars but like Bush Sr.'s plan to reach the Red Planet few expected that Mars mission to survive the reality of a stressed economy. By turning away from Constellation the Obama budget follows in the spirit of recommendations by blue ribbon Augustine Panel convened last year to access NASA's future. The commission and the new budget recognize an essential truth

We need to stop pretending we have a manned program for space exploration.

For years we have paid lip service to lofty goals and then left them underfunded and impossible to achieve. Instead we have settled for quarter measures like a space station whose purpose was unclear from the beginning. In the meantime the other limbs of NASA, like basic space science and robotic planet exploration, found themselves stressed by the agencies need to keep the Shuttle flying safely and support the other underfunded goals of the manned program.

Please do not get me wrong. I grew up checking out every book on the space program in my local library. I long for the era when we become a solar system wide civilization. And while I never understood the purpose of the Space Station, I thrilled to the images of astronauts performing weightless acrobatics as orbital construction workers.

It is, however, time to hit the reset button. I do believe our future is in space but speeches alone won't get us there and the political will to attain the high frontier has been lacking for four decades. Obama's NASA budget provides strong funding for the agency to look forward, to innovate and explore without forcing its bureaucracy to play budgetary slight of hands to maintain appearances of going to the Moon or Mars or wherever. Into the breach, hopefully, will stream the numerous private companies perched on the edge of making the ascent to orbit the commercial venture it needs to become.

No single nation will be able take us to our next stage of cultural evolution as a system wide species. The commitment of resources is too great, the vision too long term. The break that the Obama administration has given NASA will allow us, hopefully, to embrace the fundamental nature of that long term endeavor and allow a real and spirited debate on how to get there to begin. In the meantime NASA can return to the goals of space science and exploration, pushing the next generation of technologies for manned space travel and bringing new and unconventional partners into the mix.

We must continue to dream this dream but we must also find the right kind of hard realism that can channel our best energies to its realization.

(As an addendum, here is a clip of JFK arguing with NASA head James Webb and others in 1962 about the lunar program and the budget. Thanks to Kristy Schantz of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at University of Virginia for providing this.)

9:27 - February 2, 2010