Manned NASA trips at 'tipping point' on funds

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009

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 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 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."

About $3 billion a year more would be needed to have a robust exploration program, and even more than that to keep the existing program essentially on schedule, according to the report.

The committee had a jaundiced view of the Ares I rocket under development to replace the space shuttle. But the 154-page report stopped short of calling for the Ares I to be killed.

"It's a very expensive vehicle," Augustine said after a news conference in Washington.

Instead, the committee said, NASA could pump billions of dollars into a public-private partnership to build a cheaper no-frills spacecraft that could ferry astronauts to orbit by 2016. NASA, Augustine said, should be building spaceships that can travel to distant destinations "rather than running a trucking service to low earth orbit."

The NASA exploration program calls for two new rockets, a new crew capsule, a lunar lander by 2020 and a moon base. The Augustine panel said a return to the moon would be a viable strategy if NASA had more money. The panel also put forward what it calls a "flexible path," which would involve building a heavy-lift rocket to blast astronauts beyond low orbit. Missions might include the repairing of distant telescopes, a rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, a flyby of Mars and perhaps a visit to one of the Martian moons.

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