By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Don't try to put astronauts on Mars yet -- too hard, too costly. Go to the moon -- maybe. Or build rockets that could zip around the inner solar system, visiting asteroids, maybe a Martian moon. Keep the international space station going until 2020 rather than crash it into the Pacific in 2016. Help underwrite commercial spaceflight the same way the United States gave the airline business a boost in the 1920s with air mail.
And spend more money on space.
These are some of the best options for NASA in the years ahead, according to a blue-ribbon panel that spent the summer reviewing the human spaceflight program. The committee, headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, on Tuesday gave the White House and NASA the executive summary of its report, with the full report and more granular findings to come later this month.
Although taking a dim view of the status quo at NASA, the Augustine committee clearly endorsed the goal of a robust human spaceflight program and all but pleaded on behalf of the agency, which runs on an annual budget of about $18 billion. A space exploration program "that will be a source of pride for the nation" will require roughly an additional $3 billion a year, the committee found.
"The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science," the committee wrote.
Faced with reports that NASA's exploration program was running into serious technical and budgetary problems, President Obama created the Augustine committee. Its 10 members concluded that there is no plan that is compatible with budget projections that "permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way." But whether the administration wants to spend billions more on space is far from clear.
NASA's Constellation program envisions two new rockets, a new crew capsule and the return of astronauts to the moon by 2020. The goal has been to go beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo program. But the summary report states that, without more funding, a heavy-lift rocket to carry massive cargo to the moon will not be ready until the late 2020s, and "worse, there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever."
The space shuttle is scheduled to be retired in 2010; the committee offered only one scenario in which the shuttle's life would be extended. But the successors to the shuttle, the Ares 1 rocket and the Orion crew capsule, are unlikely to be ready to put Americans into orbit before 2017, the committee wrote. After the shuttle is retired, American astronauts will have to rely on Russian spacecraft -- with tickets going for upward of $50 million per seat.
As expected, the committee said NASA should extend the life of the international space station until 2020 instead of de-orbiting it four years earlier, as planned. The committee also endorsed commercial spaceflight for putting astronauts in low-Earth orbit, saying the private route could be cheaper over time.
Mars, the committee wrote, is the most enticing place to explore -- but not now.
"Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination," the report states.