JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston--A presidential panel wrapping up a review of future U.S. manned space flight options delivered a grim assessment Wednesday, showing NASA's current plan to retire the shuttle, finish the space station and return to the moon by the early 2020s is not remotely feasible without a significant restoration of previously cut funding.
In the absence of a major spending increase, "our view is that it will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area," said Norman Augustine, chairman of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee.
Augustine's committee was set up by the Obama administration to examine NASA's current plans for retiring the shuttle, completing the space station, and returning to the moon as well as alternative strategies for moving beyond low-Earth orbit.
The committee also is assessing how long NASA and its partners should operate the International Space Station. NASA currently has no money in its projected downstream budget to operate the $100 billion lab complex beyond 2015.
The Augustine committee believes the station cannot be operated without direct U.S. mission control and management and that it will cost some $1.5 billion to safely drive the huge complex out of orbit at the end of its life, whenever that might be.
NASA's current long-range plan, developed by the Bush administration in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, is to complete the space station, retire the shuttle fleet, and develop a Apollo-like Orion crew capsule that will be launched to the station by new Ares 1 rockets.
During the gap between shuttle operations and the debut of Ares-1/Orion, U.S. astronauts will have to hitch rides to the station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. NASA managers have assumed all along the station program would be extended and Ares 1/Orion would be used to deliver crews and supplies.
NASA also plans to develop a huge new unmanned heavy lift rocket called the Ares 5 that eventually will boost Orion capsules and Altair lunar landers to the moon for long-duration exploration. The Orion capsule, Ares rockets and lunar landers are the central pieces in NASA's Constellation program.
But during a final public hearing Wednesday in Washington, the Augustine panel provided a sobering look at NASA's projected budget and the requirements of various manned space flight scenarios.
Considering the Constellation program as the "program of record," panel member and former astronaut Sally Ride said NASA would need an additional $50 billion or so through 2020 to implement the program as currently planned. This scenario is known as the "unconstrained budget" case.
It assumes the shuttle is retired on schedule and that the space station is deorbited in early 2016, an option no one on the panel seems to favor. In that scenario, the new Orion/Ares 1 system would have no destination until the Ares 5 heavy lifter debuted and moon flights began after 2021.
"In the unconstrained budget, Orion and Ares 1 arrive shortly after ISS is deorbited," Ride said. "And then you get human lunar return in 2021."
Assuming NASA is forced to live within the 2010 budget guidelines provided by the Obama administration, the Ares 5 heavy lift moon rocket would not be ready until the 2028 timeframe.… Read more