As new space powers like China and India surge ahead with their efforts to create moon bases and launch manned missions to Mars, the U.S.’s space program sits at a crossroads. Once one of the world’s brightest scientific beacons, an underfunded NASA now has to come to grips with the reality that it may be beaten in the critical return to the Moon and journey to Mars. Now with the Ares I rocket prototype having logged its test flight, the true decision time about the fate of NASA begins in the government and scientific forums.
Many complain — we’ve already gone to the moon, why go back? “And what’s the point of expensive programs like the International Space Station (ISS) that cost taxpayers millions and return results that on the surface don’t seem a cost-effective way of solving pressing Earth based problems?” they argue.
On the other hand, the lure of exploration and scientific discovery are always driving forces, as is national pride. While the NASA officials would be unlikely to admit it on record, most will be embarrassed if we get beaten to Mars. For these reasons alone, the U.S. is unlikely to turn away from its dreams of exploring the solar system — however, the critical emerging argument is how best to achieve such dreams.
Retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine is leading a panel that has supplied a 155-page report to Congress with suggestions from individuals intimately involved in NASA’s past successes. The panel has suggested some rather drastic shifts in the government’s space spending strategy.
Among the panel’s recommendations are to focus on refining Ares I before deploying it and, in the meantime, buy rides to low-Earth orbit from foreign players. It also recommends that rather than scrapping the ISS or shuttle fleet, to instead retain them, using them on a reduced basis. Finally, it recommends that rather than trying to set up a moon base, we instead focus on traveling to Mars, or alternative low gravity destinations such as near-Earth asteroids or the Martian moons.
Congress, though, largely feels that the such drastic changes are unnecessary, and is leaning towards pumping $3B USD extra into the space agency to try to fix its problems. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — a Florida Democrat who flew aboard the space shuttle and helped convince President Barack Obama to give NASA’s top spot to his former mission commander, Charles Bolden – says that President Obama promised him, “NASA will get enough money to do what it does best: go explore the heavens.”
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who is married to an astronaut and chairs the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, characterized the Ares I-X prototype test program as “well managed” and “executable”. She said that the test flight showed NASA to be “on track with its human space exploration program”, and that no major policy shift was needed.
The Augustine Panel, though, insists NASA’s plans are a surefire recipe for failure. They say that the return to the Moon will cost approximately $145B USD — $45B USD more than previously estimated. Given the current NASA budget of $18B USD yearly, even President Obama’s planned cash infusion won’t be able to provide enough funding by 2020, the planned mission date, the panel argues. The panel adds that the shuttle fleet’s retirement timetable is unrealistic and should be extended to 2011. And it sharply remarks about the government’s plans to shutter the ISS in 2015, commenting, “It makes no sense to shut down the space station after five years of operation.”
The panel argues that rockets from commercial startups such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Taurus 2 would better serve the industry. Here a critical question becomes whether Augustine and his colleagues — many of them who work in the private sector — can offer unbiased analysis, given that many of them would stand to profit from such a shift.
Currently NASA plans on offering $50M USD over the next year to fund the commercial development of rockets to carry astronauts. The Augustine Panel, though, suggests that Ares won’t be ready for manned missions by 2017, and that heavier investment in commercial endeavors is the only practical approach. XCOR Aerospace’s Jeff Greason, a member of the panel said it was his “personal opinion” that commercial rockets were a better value than Ares.
So will Congress follow the recommendations and “pull the plug”, cutting back on Ares, after its first successful flight? Or will it go its own way, charging ahead with Ares? The omnibus spending bill that applies to NASA, which is to be passed in a few weeks, will shed some clues. But ultimately the nation may have to wait for a Presidential address from Barack Obama before the true fate of NASA and the U.S. space program is made clear. dedekusn, fr: dailyTech.