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Expert Panel Questions US Space Exploration Plan

By Art Chimes
23 October 2009

AugustineCmteReport-cover_210A panel of space experts has officially delivered its final report assessing options for America's future in human space exploration. The report questions some fundamental assumptions about the future direction of the U.S. space program over the coming years.

The sobering report says there isn't enough money in NASA's current and proposed budgets to do what the space agency plans to do in the coming years, including a return to the Moon. Chairman Norman Augustine briefed reporters on Thursday.

"The premier finding of the committee is that the human space flight program that the United States is currently pursuing is one that is on an unsustainable trajectory," he said. "We say that because of a mismatch between the scope of the program and the funds to support the program."

The committee was asked to come up with some realistic options for space exploration in the coming decades, rather than to make one particular recommendation. But some common elements emerged. Most of the options include using commercial vendors to get astronauts into Earth orbit, leaving NASA to do more difficult and cutting-edge work. That would probably mean scrapping the Ares I rocket that NASA has been developing, and which is set for its first test flight on Tuesday. The committee also wants NASA to fly the space shuttle at least into 2011, rather than grounding it a year from now, which is the current plan.

Some of the options outlined by the committee focus on a return to the moon, but there seemed to be an unstated preference for what it calls the "flexible path" options - including flying to an asteroid or going to Mars, but not landing there. Committee member Ed Crawley is an engineering professor at MIT. He described some of the advantages of the flexible path approach.

"What you build is the booster and the capsule, and then you can start going places," said Crawley. "You can go on an orbital flight around the moon. Then you can build a little bit more, an in-space hab, and you can go to a near-earth object. You know, what this flexible path does is it allows us to take some of the components that you would build first anyway — the heavy booster and the capsule — and start exploring while we're building the lunar landing system and the lunar surface system, so that when they become available, it's time to go to the Moon."

Committee chairman Norman Augustine is a retired aerospace industry executive and a veteran of this sort of expert advisory commission. He was asked if he thought the committee's 150-page report would really have an impact. He acknowledged there are a lot of other things going on in Washington right now — a major health care debate, economic crisis, and a couple of wars.

"But I've worked on a number of these studies where I think we've had a major impact," he said. "And I worked on an awful lot of them where we had no impact. And I guess only time will tell."

The Augustine Committee report is titled "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation."

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