NASA will tell you that it's got a new program to go way beyond low-Earth orbit and, as per Obama's instructions, land on an asteroid by the mid-2020s. Considering that Constellation did not even last five years between birth and cancellation, don't hold your breath for the asteroid landing.
Nor for the private sector to get us back into orbit, as Obama assumes it will. True, hauling MREs up and trash back down could be done by private vehicles. But manned flight is infinitely more complex and risky, requiring massive redundancy and inevitably larger expenditures. Can private entities really handle that? And within the next lost decade or two?
A melancholy rebuke
Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Gene Cernan are deeply skeptical. In a 2010 open letter, they called Obama's cancellation of Constellation a “devastating” decision that “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”
Which is why museum visits to the embalmed Discovery will be sad indeed. America rarely retreats from a new frontier. Yet today we can't even do what John Glenn did in 1962, let alone fly a circa-1980 shuttle.
At least Discovery won't suffer the fate of the Temeraire, the British warship tenderly rendered in Turner's famous painting “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838.” Too beautiful for the scrapheap, Discovery will lie intact, a magnificent and melancholy rebuke to constricted horizons.