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Costly moon visit may be out of reach

Panel develops options for new space strategy

WASHINGTON – NASA doesn’t have nearly enough money to meet its goal of putting astronauts back on the moon by 2020 – and it might be the wrong place to go, anyway. That’s one of the harsh messages emerging from a sweeping review of NASA’s human space flight program.

The Human Space Flight Plans Committee, appointed by President Barack Obama and headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, has been trying to stitch together some kind of plausible strategy for America’s manned space program. The panel has struggled to find options that stay under the current budget and include missions worthy of the cost and effort.

The committee members will meet with administration officials today and will report that there’s no realistic way to get Americans back on the moon by the target date of 2020, which has been the agency’s goal since President George W. Bush signed off on the “Vision for Space Exploration” in 2004. Landing on the moon by 2020 would require such drastic budgetary maneuvers as de-orbiting the International Space Station – crashing it into the South Pacific – in 2016.

Mars prohibitive

The final list of options being explored by the Augustine group will include some variation of a lunar base down the road. But the committee is most animated by what it calls the “Deep Space” option, a strategy that emphasizes getting astronauts far beyond Low Earth Orbit but not necessarily plunking them down on alien worlds.

Instead, the “Deep Space” strategy would send them to near-Earth asteroids and to gravitationally significant points in space, known as Lagrange points, that are beyond the Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Astronauts might even go all the way to Phobos, a tiny moon of Mars, where the spaceship wouldn’t land so much as rendezvous, in the same way that a spacecraft docks at the International Space Station.

The Earth’s moon would be a possible “off-ramp” of such a strategy but not a central target for exploration. Putting astronauts on the surface of Mars, and then returning them to Earth, would be prohibitively expensive, according to an analysis by the committee, which will send its report to the president by the end of this month.

NASA criticized

The “program of record” – NASA’s current strategy – has not fared well in the committee’s review. Former astronaut Sally Ride, a member of the panel, said the gap between NASA’s goals and its current budget totals roughly $50 billion by 2020. If the space station’s life is extended for five years, she said, the current budget would allow for the completion of a heavy-boost moon rocket only in 2028, and that would be without spending money on developing the components of a lunar base.

“If you’re willing to wait until 2028, you’ve got a heavy lift vehicle, but you’ve got nothing to lift,” she said. “You cannot do this program on this budget.”

Committee member Jeff Greason, an aerospace executive, was even more eviscerating of the NASA strategy, noting that the fixed costs of the current strategy are sure to bust the budget down the road: “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.”

The panel will give the administration a menu of options, including some that require a boost in funding for human space flight, which currently costs about $9 billion a year. Unknown, though, is how the Obama administration feels about human space flight in general. The president, both as a candidate and in the White House, has explicitly endorsed sending humans back to the moon, but his decision to create the Augustine committee is a sign that the status quo strategy, which carries the imprimatur of his predecessor and is endorsed by Congress, is not long for this Earth.

John Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, observed the panel’s session and said he wasn’t sure that the Deep Space option, with its emphasis on “fly-bys” rather than landings, would be easy to sell to the public.

“I wonder myself if just flying around and not landing anywhere would be very attractive,” he said.

The panel is certain to recommend extending the life of the International Space Station. It is also pushing hard for greater commercialization of space, including using private companies to taxi astronauts to Low Earth Orbit.

Some options include pulling the plug on the Ares I rocket that NASA has been building for four years. The Ares I is supposed to replace the space shuttle, the final flight of which is slated for late 2010 or possibly early 2011. Billions have already been spent on the rocket, which is scheduled for an inaugural test flight this month.


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