Space panel on manned flights: Shell out, or get out

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Space shuttle Atlantis (STS-129) rolls out on Oct. 14 from the Vehicle Assembly Building on a slow trek to launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA has scheduled the launch to the International Space Station for Nov. 12.
Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via MCT

WASHINGTON — A presidential space panel on Thursday unveiled
a glossy report with a simple message: NASA’s current plan to replace the space
shuttle won’t work, and the agency needs more money to do anything noteworthy.

The 155-page analysis, prepared by a group of space experts
on the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee after months of
hearings, contained no major surprises and largely reinforced what the
10-member panel has been saying for weeks. But its release puts the focus
squarely on President Barack Obama and the White House, which largely has
ignored NASA since January.

“The human spaceflight program, in the opinion of this
committee, is at a tipping point where either additional funds must be provided
or the exploration program first instituted by President Kennedy must be
abandoned, at least for the time being,” said the report by the panel,
also known as the Augustine Committee after its chairman, Norm Augustine,
former Lockheed Martin CEO.

To sustain a manned-spaceflight program, the committee
suggested, NASA needs an increase of up to $3 billion a year as well as major
changes in its current mission, now focused on returning humans to the moon by
2020.

It said that that NASA’s current Constellation program — the
Ares I and Ares V moon rockets, Orion capsule and Altair lunar lander — will
cost at least $45 billion more than budgeted.

Though the committee report mostly lists options, it
indicates that members thought the best way forward was for NASA to pick a good
rocket, invite other countries to share the cost, and use commercial rockets to
take astronauts and cargo to the space station so that the agency can explore
the inner solar system and ultimately Mars.

“If, after designing cleverly, building alliances with
partners, and engaging commercial providers, the nation cannot afford to fund
the effort to pursue the goals it would like to embrace, it should accept the
disappointment of setting lesser goals,” the report said.

Despite the list of options, however, there are signs that
Obama may reject all or most of the committee’s suggested increase to NASA’s
current $18 billion budget.

Privately, senior policy advisers monitoring the committee’s
work have said that NASA’s current Constellation moon-rocket program is
“busted” and that the Ares I rocket, at least, should be canceled.

“That just says that we have a program that doesn’t
work,” said one administration official not authorized to speak for the
White House about the panel’s analysis of Constellation’s costs. “I am not
psyched about that, but that’s just the honest truth.”

In addition, two administration officials, and several
members of Congress, have said in recent weeks that it would be difficult to
divert much more money to NASA. And the panel’s chairman said Thursday that
White House officials recently gave him a similar message.

“We have two wars. We have a health care issue. Their
answer was that it’s very difficult,” said Norm Augustine, former Lockheed
Martin CEO.

Officially, the White House released a statement that said
the administration is reviewing the findings and applauded the committee for
presenting “several key findings” against a “backdrop of serious
challenges with the existing program.”

NASA’s current plan is to retire the space shuttle in 2010
or 2011 and send new Ares rockets and an Orion capsule to the International
Space Station by 2015 and the moon by 2020. But the panel found that technical
problems and years of budget cuts have dashed that timeline.

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In particular, the panel focused on the Ares I, a mock-up
version of which is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center next week.

But the full-scale version of the rocket won’t reach the
space station until 2017 “under the best of circumstances,” said Ed
Crawley, a panel member and Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering
professor.

That would make Ares I useless if NASA ditches the space
station in 2015 as planned. And the rocket would be only marginally useful if
NASA decides to extend the space station’s life until 2020, as recommended by
the committee and supported by most members of the space community.

“The central question is not whether NASA can build the
Ares I,” Crawley said. “Really, the question is: Should NASA build
the Ares I?”

Problems with the Constellation program have led to
expectations that jobs at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., will be
decimated, as the launch facility would have little to do after the shuttle’s
retirement.

“I would assume operations (in Cape Canaveral) are
going to suffer in any event,” Augustine said.

In response, Florida lawmakers have pressed the White House
to give NASA as much money as necessary to ensure that a replacement vehicle is
developed quickly.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement that
Obama has assured him that the “NASA will get enough money to do what it
does best: go explore the heavens.”

He has joined with other lawmakers, including U.S. Reps.
Suzanne Kosmas and Bill Posey, in pushing the White House to divert unspent
stimulus funds to NASA, to the tune of “at least $3 billion,”
according to a letter sent to Obama.

And there are signs that some congressional supporters of
NASA have already disregarded the committee.

“While I look forward to reading the Augustine panel’s
final report, Congress has already made its decisions on the issues considered
by the panel,” said U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., the chairwoman
of the subcommittee with NASA oversight.

At NASA, the report already has met resistance.

In an internal e-mail leaked earlier this month, NASA’s
Constellation Program manager, Jeff Hanley, challenged the findings, saying he
was certain Ares I would be ready for launch with crew in 2015 and a return to
the lunar surface by 2025.

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Services.