Right Stuff, Wrong Time
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Credit: Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle / AP
When the Obama administration announced its intention to cancel Constellation in February 2010, it split the country's manned spaceflight strategy into two parts. Private companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX would receive federal money to develop vehicles to ferry astronauts back and forth to the station. Meanwhile, NASA would pursue a far-off goal of human exploration deeper in space. In the astronaut corps, the lack of a defined manned spaceflight objective was received as a personal affront. Constellation had been over budget and behind schedule, but it had provided NASA with what it most needed: continuity and a goal its staffers could get behind. "There's no better way to tear the heart out of an organization that's all 'schedule and challenge' than to tell them, 'We may use this for something someday; here's a little money, but don't get too excited,'" Ross told me. "There's no purpose at NASA now, and there's no schedule other than sometime, somewhere, someday, some reason."

The current plan is essentially to continue developing elements of the Constellation program – the four-person Orion crew capsule and a heavy-lift rocket  – but this time instead of the moon, the goal is to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and to orbit Mars in the mid-2030s. It's not hard to find former NASA grandees skeptical of these plans. In USA Today in May 2011, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan warned that "NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing." A month later, Michael Leinbach, then the space shuttle's launch director, told his staff, "We're all victims of poor policy out of Washington, D.C., both at the NASA level and the executive branch of the government.... Frankly, as a senior NASA manager, I'd like to apologize to you all." Wayne Hale, the former shuttle program manager, told me that he retired from the agency after he realized "it was going to be a long time before we did really fun and interesting things in the human spaceflight arena again." When I asked Ferguson why he had decided to leave the astronaut corps, he said, "I don't know where NASA's going to be in 10 years. I really, really don't."