So it was with some trepidation that I waited for the NASA budget to be unveiled a few days ago. I was concerned that amid the nation's fiscal crises, space exploration would fall off the priority list. But the NASA budget reveals a pathway to a bright future of exploration. It simply reflects the deep changes and hard decisions necessary to accomplish that goal.
Last year President Barack Obama instructed the Augustine commission to report on the likely prognosis for NASA's exploration activities. After months of study, the conclusions the panel released in October were gloomy. The Constellation program, designed to put humans back on the moon by 2020, could not possibly succeed within that time frame or budgeted amount, it reported.
In response, the president and NASA have crafted a bold plan that truly makes possible this nation's dreams for space. Their plan calls for the full embrace of commercial solutions for transporting astronauts to low Earth orbit after the space shuttle is retired this year. This frees NASA to do what it does best: deep space exploration, both robotic and human. By selecting commercial solutions for transportation to the international space station, NASA is empowering American free enterprise to do what it does best: develop technology quickly and efficiently in a competitive environment.
As Peter Diamandis, chairman of the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, wrote last week: "The U.S. government doesn't build your computers, nor do you fly aboard a U.S. government owned and operated airline. Private industry routinely takes technologies pioneered by the government and turns them into cheap, reliable and robust industries."
The shuttle lifted off before dawn Monday. It was a breathtaking sight, but also one of its last missions. When it is finally retired after about three decades of service, the United States will be dependent on the Russian Soyuz to get our astronauts to the international space station, at a cost of $50 million per person. But under the new NASA plan, private industry will take over this capability within a few years, much more quickly than Constellation would have, and at a competitive price.
The money saved will be plowed into research and development of robotic explorers that will act as technology demonstrators, paving the way for human exploration of the moon, asteroids and Mars.
Additional funding has been committed to the development of advanced propulsion technology, which can bring down the cost of spaceflight. And the space station's lifespan will be extended several years, which in turn will increase the science yield and satisfy our international partners. This cooperative international effort is important as a model for how future large-scale missions will be organized and funded. In addition, money is being made available to both Earth and planetary science, which can help us understand climate change on our own world and the processes at work on some of the other worlds in our solar system.
Over the past 15 years, I have gotten to know a lot of people at NASA while working on projects to advance space and ocean exploration. I've found that many, if not most, started as starry-eyed childhood dreamers. Maybe they loved science-fiction stories, with their promise of alien worlds, or maybe they were geeks like me, peering through a telescope in the back yard until their moms yelled again for them to come inside — "It's a school night!" They grew up to become engineers, brilliant planetary scientists and steely-eyed missile men who collectively have pushed our human presence out to the moon and our robotic presence not just to Mars but also to the outer reaches of the solar system. I applaud President Obama's bold decision for NASA to focus on building a space exploration program that can drive innovation and provide inspiration for the world. This is the path that can make our dreams in space a reality.
James Cameron, the writer and director of Avatar and Titanic, served on the NASA Advisory Council from 2003 to 2005.