Panel Reports on Human Spaceflight

Program must have an additional $30 billion to function “in any meaningful way,” committee says.

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By Ron Cowen, Science News

NASA’s program to send astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars won’t get off the ground unless the federal budget for human spaceflight is ramped up by $30 billion over the next 10 years. That’s one of the conclusions of a panel commissioned by President Obama to review U.S. human spaceflight activities. The White House released an executive summary of the committee’s report on September 8.

Critics have long charged that the initiative to send astronauts back to the moon, a plan which was begun by President George W. Bush five years ago, has never had sufficient funding. The independent panel, headed by Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of the Lockheed Martin Corp., now agrees. “The Committee finds that no plan compatible with the FY 2010 budget plan profile permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way,” the summary says.

“The frankness of this report was refreshing,” says planetary scientist Alan Stern, who stepped down last year as NASA’s associate administrator for science.

Over the next 10 years, NASA plans to spend about $108 billion to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020. The committee says an additional $30 billion is needed over that timeframe. That increase would allow one of two possible exploration programs recommended by the panel. The first would adhere to the path outlined by President Bush, to explore exclusively the moon in preparation for landing on Mars. The second possibility would be for astronauts to visit sites in space other than the moon in preparation for ultimately traveling to Mars. Successive missions might include orbiting the moon; reaching the solar system’s Lagrange points (special points in space that are important sites for scientific observations and future space transportation infrastructure); landing on near-Earth asteroids; and orbiting around Mars. People might rendezvous with a moon of Mars and from there control robots on the Martian surface.

The idea that we could circumnavigate Mars for an additional $30 billion is “enticing” and harks back to human spaceflight strategies first proposed in the 1990s—but for a cheaper sticker price, says Howard McCurdy, a public policy expert at American University in Washington, D.C.

Currently, NASA relies on its fleet of space shuttles to transport astronauts into space. However, to save money, NASA plans to retire the fleet at the end of 2010 or the beginning of 2011. A small crew exploration vehicle is now in development.

With the consultation of independent experts, the committee also finds that such a crew vehicle won’t be ready to take people into space for at least another seven years. That’s two years more than NASA had estimated. “There has not been this long a gap in U.S. human launch capability since the U.S. human space program began,” the committee notes in their summary. “The only way to significantly close the gap is to extend the life of the shuttle program” beyond 2010, the committee writes.

The committee also expressed concern that the International Space Station may not be properly maintained once the space shuttles are retired because cargo transport would rely on new and unproven vehicles designed and operated by commercial entities or countries besides the United States.

“The reality that when the shuttle finishes flying in a year or a year and a half, that we will not be able to get our own people to our own $100-billion space station unless other countries—that are uneasy allies—deign to sell us seats is, I think, beyond tragic,” says Stern. “It’s despicable for a nation of this caliber.”

The committee recommends that the space station, which was scheduled to cease operations in 2015, be extended for five additional years. “It seems unwise to de-orbit the station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life,” the committee asserts. “Not to extend its operation would significantly impair U.S. ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships.”