The gradual shutdown of accomplishment is described here.
Our physicist author, Rob Sheldon, offers UD News a guide, speaking only for himself, in the hope it may help you interpret rapidly spun news stories.
Since you asked what it means, let me try my best analysis, though I speak only for myself and perhaps some of my less politically correct NASA engineer friends.
Exploring the cosmos hostage to local politics?
Republicans have generally put US Space Policy or Foreign policy above politics, and have funded unpopular endeavors even when begun by previous Democratic presidents, recognizing that it takes 10 years to see a NASA program from start-to-finish, which is longer than the usual presidential double-term.
Democrats, however, believe that there is nothing more important than politics. Everything is short term. The future can be mortgaged. So for example George HW Bush started the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) to follow on the very successful Fermilab “Tevatron”.
Unfortunately, he built it in Texas, which gave it a partisan air. The very first thing Clinton did, was to cancel the SSC, thereby handing the next 20 years of high-energy physics to the European lab CERN in Geneva. Last month I read where Obama had denied extending funding to Tevatron, so it too will shut down in a few months.
In the same manner, George W Bush canvassed NASA and the public looking for a future for NASA at the end of the shuttle and space station era. To refresh your memory, Space Station was a Reagan initiative that was supposed to lead to technologies for going to Mars. But under Clinton, the Space Station was scaled back as far as possible without defaulting on commitments made to the Europeans. This meant that the Russians were brought in to supply the Space Station rather than use US Space Shuttles. So when the commitments to Europe had all been fulfilled, both the Station and the Shuttle were obsolete.
Bush saw this coming, and wanted to know where NASA should go next. The scientists who came through the US PhD system happily voted for more robotic missions. But both Europe (ESA) and Japan (JASA) were getting quite good at robotic missions. There just didn’t seem to be enough work to do, if NASA became merely a provider of robots and launchers. Furthermore, the national prestige thing was eroding as Europe and Japan (and soon India, China, Taiwan, South Africa, Israel) all developed equivalent capabilities.
The manned program was a product of engineers
The ugly fact is that the manned program was a product of engineers, of Werner von Braun, of staunch national patriots, who all viewed the presence of man in space as a symbol of how America was a pioneer, a superior country which would one day settle on the Moon or Mars. And all of these views were unacceptable to Democrats who fought to get Russia on the Space Station and transfer rocket technology to China. NASA became a schizophrenic agency, with the unmanned program competing with the manned program for money, for prestige, for vision, for administrative power. It was scientists against engineers, it was Democrats vs Republicans, it was socialists versus nationalists.
George W Bush tried hard, but the socialist naysayers were solidly against Mars. So he settled on a Moon mission, under the pretense that it would be a stepping stone to Mars. (For technical reasons it couldn’t be, but that made a good rationale.) Thus the Constellation program was begun late, several years into his term, and he watched NASA dragging their feet, making PowerPoint presentations, avoiding the hard stuff like hiring staff and cutting metal. Finally he trashed the director and brought in a brash young Republican engineer to run the agency. Constellation got back on track, and was making progress, when Obama became president.
Kill Mars mission
The first casualty was the NASA director, replaced with a person of no particular engineering or scientific training. After a year, the second casualty was the Constellation program to the moon. But now the scientists were beginning to feel the heat. So there was a brief public relations noise about robot missions to an asteroid. It’s a pipe dream. As long as engineers who may not be politically loyal run the manned program, the current administration will not fund it.. So until either California or Maryland turn their robotic NASA centers into manned spaceflight centers, there just won’t be any funding, now or in the future.
It’s all a consequence of making everything into a short-term political game.
* UD News blogs where the green, dark forests are too silent to be real, somewhere north of US politics. We do indeed remember the era of “Boldly go”.
Memories: July 20, 1969 Somewhere in Canada, up some river. Someone shouts: Hey, look, there’s a man walking on the Moon. An American. Come see.