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Augustine report: tough choices ahead on human spaceflight

If NASA's Constellation program is going to take astronauts to the moon or Mars, Obama will have to increase its budget, the Augustine report says.

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But this has raised red flags among some influential lawmakers. During congressional hearings on the panel's options last month, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona was skeptical that a new generation of commercial-rocket start-ups will be able to pick up taxi duties.

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In a statement Thursday, Representative Giffords repeated her objection to having "our astronauts held hostage of purchases of seats of nonexistent commercial providers."

She noted that the Augustine panel had no complaints about how NASA's new Constellation program was being run. It found no flaws in the program's initial budget, set out in 2005 at a time when outlying budget years held no inkling of a global financial collapse. And it was confident that the agency could overcome technical glitches that are inherent to any new rocket design.

"Now that both internal and eternal independent reviews have confirmed that the Constellation program is being well executed, we know what needs to be done," said Giffords, who chairs the House Science and Technology Committee's Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

Third option: the Apollo creed

But history suggests a potential third path, says Howard McCurdy, a space-policy specialist at American University in Washington.

When the US was desperate to put a human on the moon before the end of the 1960s, it got creative. Previously, NASA's approach to testing rockets was methodical – reflective of the Teutonic tendencies of the German scientists who created it. They tested one stage of a rocket at a time. During the Apollo years, however, NASA tested all three stages of the Saturn V rocket in a single test flight, shrinking the amount of time needed to get the Apollo program off the ground.

The first test flight for the Ares 1-X is scheduled for next week – and NASA is reverting to the one-stage-at-a-time approach.

Apollo's same flexibility can be applied to a different challenge today, Mr. McCurdy says: "My question is: What's the equivalent reform needed to hold the Constellation program to its existing budget?"

He adds: "Maybe the White House comes back and says: We want you to continue with the Vision for Space Exploration, and we want you to be creative in finding ways to do it."

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