The writing’s been on the wall for some time. Now it looks as though it’s finally going to be official.
The Orlando Sentinel quoted some unnamed sources today as saying that the White House is going to fight to axe the multi-billion-dollar Constellation program that was to replace the Space Shuttle as America’s next manned spaceship.
The program’s been behind schedule and over budget (now up to $8 billion and counting) pretty much from day one. What’s more, it’s based on an inherently flawed and dangerous design, using as a first stage a bigger version of the difficult-to-control solid booster that doomed the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Keeping big contractors in business in key states has always been the name of this game, more than the ostensible reason for the system, getting American astronauts back to the moon. From the Orlando Sentinel article:

One administration official said the budget will send a message that it’s time members of Congress recognize that NASA can’t design space programs to create jobs in their districts. “That’s the view of the president,” the official said.

It seems the 50-year reign of U.S. government owned manned space ships will end with the retirement of the Space Shuttle this year. What’s to take it’s place?
Certainly the Russians will keep flying U.S. astros to the International Space Station, but some home-grown solutions are waiting in the wings to fill the gap.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are already under contract to NASA to send cargo to Space Station. Looking ahead to the not-too-distant future, SpaceX is already building its cargo ships with windows. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket, capable of launching up to 7 astros into orbit, is being readied at a Cape Canaveral launch pad for its maiden voyage later this year.
Meanwhile, commercial space station builder Bigelow Aerospace is moving ahead in a partnership with Boeing to develop its own manned launchers. Robert Bigelow told me last week that he’s looking forward to a breakout year for his company as well, as he transitions from a primary focus on R&D to full-on sales mode. His man in Washington, Mike Gold, has been showing off scale models of Bigelow’s space habitats to prospects at space agencies around the world. If all goes well, soon the Space Station will no longer be the last word in orbital research centers.
My editor at Popular Mechanics, Joe Pappalardo, asks in a post today,

What will happen if private space fails to create a reliable launch vehicle? So far they are doing well, but a small engineering flaw or a mishap could grind the effort to a halt. Also, as private space companies morph into large contractors, will the risk of bureaucratic lethargy increase, as seen in the defense industry among prime contractors?

Important questions, to be sure, but I think the new, private space pioneers will indeed save the day, and open space to exploration as never before. Now all our government has to do is help, rather than hinder them. Looks like it’s on the right track.