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NASA can't afford its schedule, space experts warn

An independent panel endorses manned trips to the Moon, a nearby asteroid, even to Mars - but warns they would cost billions over the current budget.

September 09, 2009|John Johnson Jr.

A special advisory committee on the future of America's manned spaceflight program delivered a report to the White House on Tuesday that could help launch the country on an Apollo-style adventure to Mars, but which also warned that any ambitious program of exploration would 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 goal of 2020, but astronauts might not be able to go 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 panel, made up of former astronauts and space entrepreneurs, was appointed by President Obama this spring to review the Bush administration's Vision for Space Exploration, analyze NASA's agenda and come up with alternatives. The present plan, outlined in 2004, called for a return to the moon by 2020, the establishment of a lunar outpost and, decades later, human travel to Mars.

According to a 12-page summary report posted at the panel's website, hsf.nasa.gov, NASA would need at least $3 billion a year beyond its current $18.69 billion to realize the ambitious goals.

The report is a product not only of the committee's analysis and research but of a series of public hearings held around the country. Publication of the summary report, to be followed in a few weeks by 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 spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory," the report said. "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 Bush's vision -- or whether he would prefer to pull back and continue the policy of recent decades of using robots to explore deep space while astronauts work in low-Earth orbit on such tasks as constructing the nearly completed International Space Station.

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

Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, one of the world's largest communities of space buffs, said the budget shortfall was 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."

NASA is developing a new set of rockets, the Ares I and its heavy-lift sibling, the Ares V, which would be the most powerful rocket ever built. A crew of up to six astronauts, twice the number that traveled to the moon in the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, would be carried in a next-generation capsule called Orion.

Once at the moon, astronauts would establish a semi-permanent lunar base to serve as a science laboratory and possible rocket fuel manufacturing base for a trip to Mars.

But the committee pointed out that such a program would take many years beyond 2020 to complete. In the interim, NASA would appear to be doing very little in space, especially with the winding down of the shuttle program at the end of next year.

As a result, members suggested a "deep space," or "flexible," option. Under that plan, NASA would launch manned missions to rendezvous at an asteroid, fly around the moon, or even fly to one of Mars' moons, giving astronauts opportunities to hone their skills.

A program beyond low-Earth orbit "is exactly what the National Space Society supports," said Brett Silcox, the group's acting executive director.

The committee also evaluated the possibility of extending the life of the shuttles, but Augustine, in a recent interview, worried about "the reliability of an aging fleet. A very strong case could be made that it should be shut down," with no more than a six-month extension to finish work on the space station.

The committee was more favorably disposed to the idea of extending the service life of the space station from 2015 to 2020. That would allow the station a decade of scientific research before it is junked.

With the report in the hands of Obama, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a strong supporter of deep-space exploration by humans, offered his own view.

"When creatures of the Earth in two dozen years settle permanently on another planet, the leader who sent them will go down in history as greater than Julius Caesar, Queen Isabella, all those people," he said.

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john.johnson@latimes.com

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