Panel questions strategy of civilian space program

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009; 4:37 PM

Put more money into NASA's human space flight program or forget about going anywhere new and interesting with astronauts, a blue-ribbon panel told the White House on Thursday.

In its final, 154-page report -- "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation" -- the 10-person committee led by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine said NASA's current program "is at a tipping point where either additional funds must be provided or the exploration program first instituted by President Kennedy must be abandoned at least for the time being."

The committee had a jaundiced view of the Ares 1 rocket currently under development as a replacement for the space shuttle. But the report stopped short of calling for the Ares 1 to be killed outright.

"It's a very expensive vehicle," Augustine said after a news conference in Washington. Under current budgets, Ares 1 won't be ready to take astronauts to the International Space Station until 2017 at the earliest, the committee estimated.

Instead, the committee reported, NASA could pump billions of dollars into a public-private partnership to build a simpler, cheaper, no-frills spacecraft that could ferry astronauts to orbit by 2016. Such a "commercial" program would be a break with tradition at NASA and controversial in the aerospace industry. But NASA should be devoting its money and skills to building spaceships that can travel to distant destinations "rather than running a trucking service to low earth orbit," Augustine said.

The committee spent months eyeballing NASA's strategy, and concluded that means and mission are mismatched. Augustine said the budgetary landscape has changed beneath the human space flight program since the new back-to-the-moon strategy was developed five years ago by the Bush Administration and approved by Congress. Recent budgets in both the Bush and Obama administrations have trimmed the long-term funding of human exploration. The current program, which calls for two new rockets, a new crew capsule, a lunar lander and a moon base, could be achieved more or less on schedule (with a moon landing in the early 2020s) only if NASA received an additional $45 billion for exploration between 2010 and 2020, the report states. Such a huge boost is unlikely.

The committee presented the administration with five major options for exploration, three of which require more money. Some of that could be diverted from other NASA programs. Augustine urged the White House to give the NASA administrator the authority to run the agency the way a CEO runs a company, with authority to downsize parts of the agency that aren't critical to the exploration strategy.

Going to Mars, the most attractive target for exploration, would be cost-prohibitive given today's technology and plausible NASA budgets, the committee found.

"Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration of the inner solar system, but is not a viable first destination beyond low-Earth orbit," the report states.

The committee said a Moon-first option is a viable strategy, but the report cites the advantages of what it calls the "flexible path" approach, in which a heavy-lift rocket would blast astronauts millions of miles into space, perhaps to a near-Earth asteroid or even to one of the moons of Mars.

"It is likely that the Flexible Path approach would engender more Public Engagement than the Moon First approach. In every flight, the Flexible Path voyages would visit places where humans have never been before, with each mission extending farther than the previous one, potentially leading to a full dress rehearsal for a Mars landing," the report states.

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