September 9, 2009 in City

NASA faces limits of low-orbit budget

Going to deep space requires deep pockets, advisory panel warns
John Johnson Jr. Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

In this Sept. 1 NASA photo, astronaut Nicole Stott works on International Space Station maintenance. The president could decide to keep human astronauts working in low-Earth orbit, doing such things space station construction.
(Full-size photo)

A special advisory committee on the future of America’s manned space flight program delivered a report to the White House on Tuesday that could help launch the country on an Apollo-style adventure to Mars but also warned darkly that any ambitious program of exploration will require big infusions of cash.

Without a significant boost in NASA’s budget, not only will it be impossible to return to the moon by the currently stated goal of 2020, but astronauts might not return at all, according to the report by the Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

“Under the current budget, you’d never get there,” said committee chairman Norman Augustine, a former chief executive at Lockheed Martin.

The committee, comprising former astronauts and private space entrepreneurs, was appointed by President Barack Obama this spring to review the Bush administration’s Vision for Space Exploration – analyzing NASA’s current plans and coming up with possible alternatives. The present plan, outlined in 2004, called for a return to the moon by 2020, the establishment of a lunar outpost and then, decades later, human travel to Mars.

According to the 12-page summary report, posted online at the committee’s Web site, NASA would need at least $3 billion a year beyond its current $18.68 billion to realize those ambitious goals.

The document is a product not only of the committee’s analysis and research but of a series of public hearings held around the country in the past weeks. Publication of the summary report, to be followed in a few weeks by public release of the complete findings, gives the clearest picture yet of a space program with lots of vision but far too little money for what it wants to accomplish.

“The U.S. human space flight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory,” the report states. “It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.”

The president has not indicated whether he is willing to spend the money to carry out former President George W. Bush’s vision – or whether he would prefer to pull back and continue the policy of recent decades of using robots to do deep space exploration while human astronauts work in low-Earth orbit, doing such things as constructing the nearly completed International Space Station.

The bleak budget picture aside, some members of the space community were encouraged by the report, which amounted to a strong endorsement of an ambitious program of human exploration, culminating with humans working and living on Mars.

Lou Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif., one of the world’s largest communities of space buffs, said the budget shortfall is just “one focus” of the report.

“I think insiders, of which I am one, are going to wring their hands and say, ‘We’re going to delay the lunar landing,’ ” Friedman said. “But if the general public sees that we may move faster out into deep space, they will be excited. We still have a very exciting program here.”

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