By Joel Achenbach — President George W. Bush proposed a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 as part of a sustained lunar presence. The new NASA program, Constellation, included plans for two rockets, a crew capsule called Orion and a lunar lander.
But at NASA there's a saying: "Budget is mission-critical." Constellation's funding fell short of what top NASA officials expected. The program fell behind schedule. A new rocket, Ares I, had some delays and technical problems (then-NASA administrator Michael Griffin would point out that only the PowerPoint rockets always work perfectly).
Barack Obama won the presidency, and Griffin was soon gone, along with Bush's Constellation program. Obama's pick to run his NASA transition team, Lori Garver, never liked the back-to-the-moon strategy.
"If your goal is Mars, that is certainly a detour," she said recently.
Obama appointed Gen. Charles Bolden Jr., a four-time shuttle astronaut, to the administrator position, with Garver as his deputy. The president also tapped retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine to lead an advisory review of the NASA human spaceflight program.
The Augustine committee skewered Constellation, saying that without an infusion of money it wouldn't get astronauts back to the moon until the late 2020s, and even then there wouldn't be any money for a lander, much less a moon base.
In killing Constellation, Obama and his team adopted what the Augustine Committee dubbed the "flexible path" strategy. The concept is arguably a sign of institutional maturity: NASA would focus less on destinations and more on creating new technologies. The idea was to advance spaceflight capabilities, with the long-term goal of sending people to Mars. Commercial companies could take over the routine taxi rides to orbit, and NASA would tackle harder missions.