So, since my body have apparently decided after three days of late nights that sleep is something other people do, I'm left awake pondering the future of NASA after the successful passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2011, which happened at about 11:30 PM last night, with an (as always) excellent detailed report on the proceedings filed by Chris Bergin of NASAspaceflight.com. It should head to the White House early next week for official signature, but it seems like a veto is an outside shot, especially since the bill passed with the unanimous consent of the Senate and a 304-118 margin in the House--well more than the 2/3 that would be needed to overturn a veto. So, what does this mean for NASA, and what does it mean for spaceflight as a whole?
NASA's immediate future isn't perfect. I'm not entirely sure of the status of things during the continuing resolution's span, and even if the SLS program and everything else started today, it wouldn't reverse the job losses that have already happened. However, things seems a lot brighter than they would be if the bill that was passed had not been in several ways. First, Ares I at least is almost definitely dead the instant the President signs the bill into law. This is good, in my view, since it would have provided similar capacity to manned EELVS, Falcon 9, or Taurus II at several times the cost per flight while requiring flying crew on top of a single huge solid rocket motor, which has always scared me. Hopefully, the Stick design can be put away in the Round File. Second, NASA's future has a definite short-term goal: build SLS and Orion. Get them flying before 2016. This is definitely possible; the DIRECT team estimates something like their J130/J246 could have a core vehicle ready for testing in three years, while Lockheed Martin is apparently now planning on first testing Orion on a Delta IV Heavy sometime in the 2013 range.
So in summary, by 2016, we should have oodles of choices in launch vehicles (SLS, EELV, NuSpace) and capsules (Orion, Dragon, CST-100) even without mentioning the possibilities offered by our international partners in the ESA and Russia (such as the proposed crewed derivation of the ATV or whatever Russian launchers and vehicles end up turning out). This is really exciting to me, because this means that our ability to get elements of BEO missions to low Earth orbit might just be triply redundant. As Robert Heinlein once said, "If you can get your ship into orbit, you're halfway to anywhere." The Lunar module was developed in 6 years, start to flight. I bet if we started in 2016, we could put humans back on the moon by 2020. Give us a Bigelow Transhab module or ATV-derived habitat, and we could send humans to Martian orbit or a near-Earth asteroid about the same time, if not sooner. Give us another few years to work up a Mars lander, and we'll give you bootprints on Martian soil.
To sum this up in a quick form: I approve of the whole new NASA direction because it may give us the kind of redundancy in access to Earth orbit for crew and mission elements that we normally ask of the spacecraft we send there. In doing so, it then allows us to focus our attention firmly on the other half of the problem of going to exciting and intriguing new worlds and making them places the same way the moon became one in the minds of the world when we had men living and working on its surface. Even if parts of this don't fully work out, that redundancy means exciting and wonderful things can still happen.