Congress in hot seat over human spaceflight

It'll cost an extra $3 billion a year to keep a viable program aloft, a review panel says.

Will the Obama administration and the 111th Congress go down in history as the politicians who turned out the lights on the US human-spaceflight program?

That is the fundamental question several lawmakers are asking as they pore over options and observations that were presented by a panel charged with reviewing America's human-spaceflight effort.

The review panel, formed at the behest of the Obama White House and headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, has set out five "families" of options that could yield "a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human spaceflight program," as the panel's charter puts it. These options include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's current effort.

The hitch: No option is viable unless NASA's budget rises by some 16 percent above currently requested levels over the next five years. That translates to about $3 billion more a year. After the five-year period, the agency's budget would have to increase annually at the rate of inflation, according to the review panel.

It's an uncomfortably familiar crossroad. In 1971, President Nixon's budgeteers recommended axing the last two Apollo flights as well as the shuttle program. The question that kept Mr. Nixon from acting as a lord high executioner: Do you want to go down in history as the president who ended the country's manned-spaceflight program?

Now some lawmakers, noting that President Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration was long on goals but short on cash, have become exasperated.

"We've got to fish or cut bait," observes Rep. Brian Baird (D) of Washington, who counts himself as a strong advocate for space exploration. His comment came Tuesday during House Science Committee hearings on the Augustine panel's findings.

The Bush vision set out a timeline for retiring the shuttle, replacing it with more-conventional rockets and crew capsules, and enduring a gap that leaves Russian rockets as the only way for US astronauts to commute to and from the space station. Under this timeline, the plug would be pulled on the space station in 2015. And the plan aimed to put US boots back on the moon by 2020.

NASA's Constellation program, the outgrowth of this vision, is viable, the review panel holds – if NASA gets the long-term spending increases. The moon landing, however, would have to come sometime in the 2020s.

The program has cleared two important hurdles in the past two weeks. The crew capsule, dubbed Orion, passed its preliminary design review. And engineers successfully test-fired a full-scale motor for the Ares 1, a rocket designed to carry crews to and from low Earth orbit.

But without the funding increases, the program "is fatally flawed," Dr. Augustine says.

Why? Without more money, the Ares 1 would take longer to build. And by the time it would be ready, the space station would either already be shut down or have only a year or two left. So astronauts would have no place to go. Also, after completion of the Ares 1, operation costs would be budget busters without a funding increase.

The review panel says its other families of options would face the same problems if the White House and Congress sit on their wallets.

One of those families includes a so-called flexible path that allows the agency to plan orbital trips for astronauts to several possible destinations beyond low Earth orbit between 2020 and 2030. This includes a trip to Mars and back, though no landing.

The approach envisions that NASA relies on commercial rockets to get crews into low Earth orbit. NASA would then develop one rocket, the Ares 5, to lift heavy loads for exploration. All the while, the space station's life would be extended until 2020, rather than 2015.

The panel's options appear in a 12-page summary. A more detailed, 100-plus page document is expected by the end of the month.


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