Options narrow for future of human spaceflight

A panel moves closer to recommending where NASA should fly next, and how.

Bob Gathany/AP
US human spaceflight panel chairman Norman Augustine listens to public comments at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center on July 29 in in Huntsville, Ala.

If the US simply maintains spending for human spaceflight at current levels, NASA will have enough money to build one new rocket to carry crews into space by 2020. But it will literally be a rocket to nowhere: The space agency will have no place to send it for at least another decade.

That stark message underlies options for the US human spaceflight program, which a 10-member panel will present to the Obama administration when it wraps up its work at the end of August. The panel's assignment: Present the president with choices that are sustainable, fit within current budget constraints, yet represent bold steps beyond low-Earth orbit.

"Our view is that it will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring," said panel chairman Norman Augustine at the end of Wednesday's public meeting in Washington – probably the last the committee will hold before it winds up its work.

Barring new information, the panel has zeroed in on four options to present to the White House. Two focus on the moon as the space program's next destination beyond low-Earth orbit. Two others focus on a suite of deep-space missions that include trips around the moon, to asteroids, and a Mars fly-by. This path could lead to a mission to each of four deep-space destinations between 2020 and 2030.

All four options envision Mars as a long-term destination for human boot prints, but the panel struck Mars off its agenda as an immediate goal because of cost.

NASA's current plans call for retiring the shuttle by September 2010, then completing two new rockets based on shuttle components: the Ares 1 and its crew capsule Orion, to loft astronauts; and a more powerful Ares 5 to lift 71 metric tons (78 US tons) of cargo into space. They would be used to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and later for any Mars missions the US might undertake.

Without additional cash, however, NASA faces an unpleasant future, according to the panel's calculations.

If NASA follows its two-rocket solution, ends the shuttle in early 2011, and shuts down the space station in 2015 to redirect money toward the Ares 1/Orion combination, that system still wouldn't become operational until late 2018. And the Ares 5, needed for any mission beyond low-Earth orbit, wouldn't be available until 2028. If NASA were to focus on using the space station until 2020 and build only Ares 5 to launch crews and cargo, the rocket still wouldn't be available until 2028. Either way, when the Ares 5 comes along, it would have nothing heavy to lift, since no money is left to develop lunar hardware.

NASA's two-rocket solution also would face daunting operations costs.

"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" because of the long-term operating costs, said aerospace executive and panel member Jeff Greason during Wednesday's meeting.

At least one option, a deep-space effort that would rely on NASA buying off-the-shelf rockets upgraded to carry humans, would face major political hurdles. The panel estimates that option could cost NASA 3,000 civil-service jobs at several facilities, including the Kennedy Space Center. But the short-term hardship could lead to a more sustainable, robust exploration effort in the long run, some panel members said.


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