August 14, 2009

Panel Says NASA’s Moon Plans Unlikely

NASA's plans to reach the moon by 2020 could be hampered by budget shortcomings, according to a committee appointed by President Barack Obama to review the space agency's space flight plans.

Led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman R. Augustine, the Human Space Flight Plans Committee was commissioned in May by President Obama to perform a review of NASA's human spaceflight plans.

The 10-member committee has determined that NASA's ambitious goal of sending astronauts to the moon again by 2020 is unrealistic. The plan to revisit the moon has been in place since 2004, when President George W. Bush authorized the "Vision for Space Exploration."

Committee members are expected to meet with the Obama administration on Friday to inform them that the current level of funding will not provide a way to reach the moon by 2020. The current plan would only be possible if NASA chose to de-orbit the International Space Station by crashing it into the South Pacific in 2016. The panel said it expects the $100 billion orbiting outpost to be extended to 2020.

"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 Augustine.

NASA has plans to retire its shuttle fleet by 2010. Its successor, the Ares 1 rocket and Orion space capsule, is not expected to be ready for spaceflight until 2016. During this time, NASA has been advised to use Russian rockets to visit space until the Ares 1 is ready for launch.

The HSF committee said under the current budget, NASA would not be likely to visit the moon until 2028.

"If you're willing to wait until 2028, you've got a heavy-lift vehicle, but you've got nothing to lift," the Washington Post quoted committee member and former astronaut Sally Ride on Wednesday at the final public meeting of the committee.

"You cannot do this program on this budget."

"If Santa Claus brought us this system tomorrow, fully developed, and the budget didn't change, our next action would still have to be to cancel it," said committee member Jeff Greason.

"We are on a path right now for a system that requires roughly double the current budget just to operate."

On Thursday, MIT professor and committee member Ed Crawley said there is a strong consensus among the committee that commercial transportation options should be looked at.

"I've always believed there was a great commercial role in the unmanned arena, but the more I've thought about it, the more I think that applies to the human arena as well," said chairman Augustine.


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