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The future of the U.S. manned shuttle mission is considered bleak, as NASA needs at least $3 billion more per year

The U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee now believes NASA must come up with an additional $3 billion per year to be able to launch manned missions to the moon or to Mars.

The committee said the U.S. space agency absolutely must rely more on private contractors to help fly astronauts back to the International Space Station, and other low Earth-orbit destinations.  Five years ago during the Bush era, it was planned for NASA to get back to the moon by 2020 -- a goal that is extremely unlikely to be met.

Although China, Russia, Japan, India, and the United States all have outlined plans to get back to the moon, it seems like Mars is the true goal for every major space nation.

"You can say that Mars is a destination, but it's really more like Mars is a goal because we're not setting a date," said Leroy Chiao, a member of the 10-person committee, who spoke with Reuters.  "It's saying these are the things we need to do to build up the infrastructure to get to Mars, this is how much money we have now, and we'll see in the next several years what we think we can get done. Then it'll be for the next budget cycles after that to figure out when we might actually get to Mars."

China is expected to be the next country to reach the moon again, according to U.S. space officials, noting there just isn't enough funding going into NASA's long-term manned missions.

Furthermore, the current fleet of space shuttles, which were supposed to be retired in 2010, will likely fly into 2011, the panel said.  President Barack Obama's advisers will analyze the committee's findings, but it's unknown when the president will begin to outline what lies ahead for NASA over the next few years.

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RE: something else we could do
By guacamojo on 9/9/2009 10:52:45 AM , Rating: 2
im talking about a MUCH more efficient method that would lower the cost of transport by an order of magnitude.

it would probably be an air breathing plane that took off from a runway, flew up to high altitude, then used rocket engines to get that last bit up. come back and land at said airport.

Um, that's not very revolutionary. Orbital Sciences had this for small satellite launches 15 years ago. (OSC Pegasus) Scaled Composites took a similar approach with the White Knight/SpaceCraftOne combination for the X-Prize.

Neither one reduced launch costs by 1-2 orders of magnitude. Consider this: LEO is usually defined by a minimum altitude of 100 miles and requires a delta-V of > 9.3 km/sec. Launching from an aircraft traveling 680 mi/hr (0.3 km/sec) at 40,000 feet (7.5 miles) doesn't have a huge impact on those numbers.

Is it a reduction in propellant? Absolutely. But the economics of flying a large aircraft-based launch platform are hardly clear-cut. Others who have investigated cost-effective launchers (notably SpaceX) have drawn the opposite conclusion, and are launching from the ground with less-complex hardware.

RE: something else we could do
By HotFoot on 9/9/2009 11:58:42 AM , Rating: 2
I'm pretty sure the biggest advantage of launching from 40,000 ft is that the rocket nozzle can be better optimised for low ambient pressure. There's a huge compromise made in the nozzle design between sea-level and high-altitude.

RE: something else we could do
By guacamojo on 9/9/2009 1:33:41 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, I admit I oversimplified the picture. There are other advantages to air launch, including increased nozzle efficiency, reduced aero drag, flexibility in launch location, reduction of weather-related delays, reduction in launch facility costs (such as blastproof outbuildings, pads, etc.), and reduced insurance costs.

However, my point still remains that the advantages of air launch do not amount to 1-2 orders of magnitude reduced launch costs. If they did, it would be a much easier decision and more companies would do it. OSC certainly didn't realize that kind of cost advantage. ($25k per kg to LEO isn't cheap!)

By way of contrast, SpaceX is a very cost-focused company, whose goal is to reduce launch costs by 10x. Their approach is pretty conventional: ground-based launchers, (relatively) simple hardware, and reduced logistics. To date, they've achieved about $8k per kg to LEO. Not 10x by a long shot, but still commendable.

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