Right now it is hard for many of us to get a handle on where NASA is headed. George W. Bush set out a new course with the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration. The Constellation Project was going to return us to the Moon and eventually onto Mars. We were going to build the Orion space craft, which looked a lot like "Apollo on Steroids," but which was a high-tech vision based on what we had learned from the Shuttle and Apollo. The Ares series of rockets were promising us great things.
Constellation was over budget and behind schedule, and there was great debate about its goals. Obama cancelled that program and set up a new agenda.
The House and Senate have now passed the new NASA Authorization.
So where are we now?
1. The Space Shuttle, long planned to have ended in 2010, will have one additional flight in 2011. The Space Shuttle doesn't take us anywhere besides our own back yard. It can only achieve "low earth orbit." We desperately need a vehicle that can take us to low earth orbit, the moon and beyond.
2. The International Space Stationed was never meant to be eternal - under Bush it was due to be retired in 2015. It has now been extended to "2010 and possibly beyond."
3. The Orion is currently being developed and is making great progress. It is on schedule for its first human mission in 2016. It has been reduced from a 6 person craft to 4.
4. The Moon? No concrete plans for more human excursions exist. At least not right now. And not with the US. China plans a human mission to the Moon in 2025 with a moonbase ten years after that. They will probably accomplish this. India and Japan both plan to have their own human expeditions in 2020, but neither currently have the capacity to launch astronauts into space as China does. They depend on the US and Russia to get their astronauts there. The European Space Agency plans a human mission to the moon in 2024, but like India and Japan, their astronauts go to the Space Station via NASA or Russian crafts. My guess would be the next humans on the moon will be either Chinese or a multi-national cooperative project.
5. Obama's vision in April 2010 added a human expedition to an asteroid by 2025. That project survives the current NASA authorization.
6. Mars is still set for the mid-2030s.
The most exciting work being done right now is with the Orion capsule and the excursion vehicle. The Orion capsule will be an emergency escape vehicle for the space station, but "Orion based" vehicles will be developed for other missions beyond Earth orbit. The Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) is a fantastic excursion vehicle that is being designed so that, with appropriate modifications, can be used on the Moon, asteroids and Mars.