First, the good news (and this is assuming that the people I’m linking are correct — I haven’t had time to read through it myself). As Clark points out, the policy to support NASA’s chartered requirement to encourage maximize the use of commercial activity now has a lot more detail. As Gary Hudson notes in comments, any sane reading of it kills the Orion lifeboat, at least as a sole-source Lockmart cost-plust ($4.5B?!) program.
The bad news, as related in this discussion kicked off by Neil Halelamien at NASA Spaceflight, is that the overall human spaceflight goals have been weakened considerably (per the comment from Bill White). I didn’t expect (and don’t care all that much) that the moon is no longer a goal (as I said, we’ll probably have a new policy in a less than three years anyway, and the old one wasn’t getting us to the moon). But it looks to me like the main thrust of the VSE has been lost, if true. The 2006 policy (which was based in part on the 2004 VSE), said that the goal was to “implement and sustain an innovative human and robotic exploration program with the objective of extending human presence across the solar system.”
The new policy deletes this and apparently replaces it with: “Pursue human and robotic initiatives to develop innovative technologies, foster new industries, strengthen international partnerships, inspire our Nation and the world, increase humanity’s understanding of the Earth, enhance scientific discovery, and explore our solar system and the universe beyond.”
From the standpoint of extending humans into space beyond earth, this is pretty weak tea in comparison. It in fact doesn’t require it. “Human and robotic initiatives” could mean having people in the space station monitoring robots exploring Mars. It doesn’t require humans on Mars, or anywhere beyond LEO (and perhaps even that). It could even just mean that humans at JPL will mind the robots. It all comes back to the outdated and useless notion that NASA is only about “science” and exploration. The old policy contained the word “explore,” but it was clearly much more than that, in its extending human presence language. The new policy has reverted to the exploration goal as an end in itself, rather than a means, and is a huge step backwards.
I don’t know whether this was deliberate or not (but given Holdren’s ideology, I’m assuming the worst), but clearly the goal of extending humanity into the solar system, which to me was the key element in the VSE missing for, well, forever in previous space policy has been abandoned. I am open to hearing an explanation from an administration official (most likely in the White House) as to why this language was changed, but for now, I consider it a betrayal of what much of the space community has been fighting for for decades, and thought we had won six and a half years ago.
Since the beginning of this administration, despite my strong disagreement with it on almost every other policy, I have been giving it the benefit of the doubt, defending it against many with whom I agree on other issues. I will continue to fight for the technologies needed to expand humans beyond the earth, and the needed commercialization of earth-to-orbit transportation for both crew and cargo, and I remain glad that we’ve killed off the parasitic monstrosity of Constellation, but I cannot, and will not defend this new policy document, at least in regard to that goal statement.
[Update a while later]
Well, that will teach me to post without Reading The Whole Thing. “Major Tom” says it contains these words:
The Administrator of NASA shall:
– Set far-reaching exploration milestones. By 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid. By the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth;
So that’s pretty clear. I’d still like to know when the wording changed, though. “Extending human presence across the solar system” wasn’t an explicit advocacy of space settlements, but it clearly implied more than mere exploration, at least to me. The solar system is sufficiently large that it implies people living in space, far beyond LEO and even Greater Metropolitan Earth.