By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009
NASA doesn't have nearly enough money to meet its goal of putting astronauts back on the moon by 2020 -- and it may be the wrong place to go anyway. That's one of the harsh messages emerging from a sweeping review of NASA's human spaceflight program.
Although it is just an advisory panel, the Human Space Flight Plans Committee could turn the entire space program upside down. Appointed by President Obama and headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, the 10-person panel has held a series of marathon meetings in recent weeks to try to Velcro together some kind of plausible strategy for NASA. The agency's trajectory over the next two decades, as well as the fate of thousands of civil servants and private contractors, could be affected by the group's report, due at the end of this month.
The committee members will meet with administration officials Friday and are likely to say that under current funding, there's no realistic way to get Americans back on the moon by 2020, which has been the goal since President George W. Bush signed off on the "Vision for Space Exploration" in 2004. The current NASA plan makes a moon landing in 2020 possible under the budget only if the agency de-orbits the international space station -- crashing it into the South Pacific -- in 2016.
Moreover, the current strategy involves retiring the space shuttle in 2010 and replacing it with the new Ares I rocket and the Orion crew capsule, which NASA hopes would be ready to take astronauts to low Earth orbit in 2016. During the long gap in NASA's human spaceflight ability, American astronauts would have to hitch rides into space on Russian rockets. The awkward plan has been seen as a budgetary necessity, with shuttle program money flowing into the new Constellation program that features the new space hardware that could eventually put astronauts on the lunar surface.
The committee has chewed over a basic paradox in the plan, which is that, even if everything went smoothly, the new rocket would not be able to get astronauts to low Earth orbit until just about the time that the space station would be fireballing its way back to Earth.
Although the station has never been terribly popular with scientists, its $100 billion price tag and role in international aerospace cooperation makes its early demise politically unpalatable. The Augustine panel assumes the station's life will be extended to 2020. But under that budgetary scenario, according to the panel's just-completed analysis, the current NASA budget would not permit the launch of a new heavy-boost moon rocket, the Ares V, until 2028 -- even without any funding for key lunar-base components.
"If you're willing to wait until 2028, you've got a heavy-lift vehicle, but you've got nothing to lift," said committee member Sally Ride, the former astronaut, in Washington on Wednesday at the final public meeting of the committee. "You cannot do this program on this budget."
Committee member Jeff Greason, an aerospace executive, derided the NASA strategy, noting that the fixed costs of the current Constellation program are sure to bust the budget in the decades ahead: "If Santa Claus brought us this system tomorrow, fully developed, and the budget didn't change, our next action would have to be to cancel it."
NASA spokesman David Steitz said it would be premature for the agency to comment on the committee's work.
John Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, observed the panel's session Wednesday and said NASA faces a problem that has been years in the making.
"This is a heritage of one of the many failed promises of the Bush administration -- to set out a very good policy and then not provide the resources that come anywhere near funding it," Logsdon said.
The panel will give the administration a menu of options that includes some that require a boost in funding for human spaceflight, which currently costs a little less than $10 billion a year, including the shuttle, the station and the Constellation program. Those options will include variations of a lunar program -- the committee appears to prefer to see astronauts making sorties to various locations on the moon rather than concentrating on a single outpost at the moon's pole, which is the current plan.
The committee is clearly most animated by what it calls the "Deep Space" option, a strategy that emphasizes getting astronauts far beyond low Earth orbit but not necessarily plunking them down on alien worlds. Instead, the Deep Space strategy would send them to near-Earth asteroids and to gravitationally significant points in space, known as Lagrange points, that are beyond the Earth's protective magnetosphere.
Astronauts might even go all the way to Phobos, a tiny moon of Mars, where the spaceship wouldn't land so much as rendezvous, in the same way a spacecraft docks at the International Space Station. That might seem a long way to go without touching down on the planet below. But the Deep Space option steers clear of "gravity wells," which is to say the surface of any planet or large moon. The energy requirements of going up and down those steep gravity hills are so great that it would take many heavy-lift rocket ships to carry supplies and fuel on a mission to the Martian surface. A human landing on Mars is presently beyond NASA's reach under any reasonable budgetary scenario, the committee has determined.
But Augustine said at the Wednesday gathering that Mars is still the most interesting target for exploration, and all options have to be framed as part of a longer-term effort to send people to the Red Planet.
The panel is also pushing hard for greater commercialization of space, including using private companies to taxi astronauts to low Earth orbit.
Some options include pulling the plug on the Ares I rocket that NASA has been building for four years. The Ares I is supposed to replace the space shuttle, the final flight of which is slated for late 2010 or possibly early 2011. About $3 billion has already been spent on the rocket, a version of which is scheduled for an inaugural test flight later this month.
The administration's overall attitude toward human spaceflight remains unclear. The president, both as a candidate and in the White House, has explicitly endorsed sending humans back to the moon, but his decision to create the Augustine committee is a sign that the status quo strategy, which carries the imprimatur of his predecessor, is not long for this Earth.
Any strategy going forward must cope with the obvious problem that the United States has already visited the moon, and the solar system offers earthlings few other appealing places to go that are anywhere close at hand. Logsdon said he wasn't sure that the Deep Space option, with its emphasis on "flybys" rather than landings, would be easy to sell to the public.
"I wonder myself if just flying around and not landing anywhere would be very attractive," he said.