End of an era for NASA By Darren Osborne In 2010, the space shuttle fleet will fly their last missions into space. (Reuters: NASA TV) Step aside NASA; it's time to let private enterprise take hold of the wheel. That's the message US President Barack Obama delivered when he handed down NASA's budget. The US President has put the brakes on the space agency's ambition to return to the Moon - a goal set by his predecessor George W Bush - and set in train the biggest fundamental change in space exploration in half a century. At the core of the push to the Moon was the Constellation program. Designed by NASA to replace the space shuttle, it has already cost the US taxpayer close to $US7 billion and is several years behind schedule. In October, the first test flight of the fledging program, the Ares 1-X rocket, successfully launched into the Florida sky. But that success was overshadowed by the release of the Augustine Human Space Flight Review Committee's report released at the end of 2009. The committee, which included former astronaut Dr Sally Ride, recommended sweeping changes the way NASA managed its human spaceflight program. "The human spaceflight program that the United States is currently pursuing is on an unsustainable trajectory," they wrote. They estimated that the Constellation program would cost more than $US100 billion and miss the 2020 Moon deadline by at least 10 years. In the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, continuing the program was clearly a bad idea. The cancellation of the Constellation program will certainly mark the end of an era in US space exploration. In 2010, the space shuttle fleet - of which three remain - will fly their last missions into space. One is already destined for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, while the other two will be put up for sale. Come 2011, US astronauts will spend the next five to 10 years having to hail a ride on Russia's ageing, albeit still operating, Soyuz spacecraft. In the meantime, NASA will team up with private enterprise, to support and encourage them to develop the spacecraft of the 21st century. No longer will NASA dictate what is to be built and how. For keen observers of space exploration, this approach makes sense. NASA executives fly on planes built by private industry, they drive cars built by private industry and use computers built by private industry. Why don't NASA astronauts climb on board spacecraft designed and built by private industry? Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, built by Scaled Composites, is expected to carry paying passengers on sub-orbital flights - the equivalent of a joyride around the block, sometime this year. But this is several years behind schedule and falls a long way short of getting to low Earth orbit. Another frontline contender is SpaceX, which last year successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket into space. While that is an incredible achievement for a small private company, it's still a long way from achieving the kind muscle needed to carry one, let alone three, astronauts into space at one time. Even with an injection of extra government funding and support, it is possible that NASA will have to rely on Russia to fly its astronauts into space until the end of the decade. As a result, the space agency has slimmed down its astronaut corps. It seems growing up to be an astronaut is less of a career option than it was in the 1960s. Of course the biggest losers are the industries that have relied on NASA and the space shuttle for the past three decades. US Congresswomen and Senators from Texas, Alabama and Florida - the three states most reliant on NASA's human space flight program - have all voiced their opposition, vowing to block it. Florida's space coast will also suffer - tourists aren't as likely to want to watch a robot named 'Spirit' or 'Curiosity' risk its life on the top of a rocket. With only five space shuttle launches left, the local tourism industry is sure to milk as much as they can get.