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Despite a succesful test flight of a prototype of its Ares I rocket, an independent panel insists NASA is on a collision course.  (Source: MSNBC)

The panel, led by former NASA officials, many of whom now work in the private sector, insists that the Ares program should be put on hold and NASA should rely on commercial rocket develop by companies like SpaceX, whose rocket is pictured here.  (Source: 62MileClub)

They also take issue with Congress's plan to scrap the Internation Space Station in 2015.  (Source: NASA)
The future of NASA is murky as different opinions are voiced

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.

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Why start from scratch?
By ussfletcher on 11/5/2009 2:08:50 AM , Rating: 1
One thing I've wondered since I started my internship at NASA was "Why reinvent the wheel?" We have had working rockets since the 1960's capable of just about everything expected from the Aries. Russia has had a similar rocket as well, it seems that it would be most efficient to start with an old design and modernize it.

Another thing I've wondered is "Why Mars?" Really, it seems rather pointless to send humans to Mars other than to just say "Yay we did it!" Honestly I think there are higher priorities, like maintaining a base on the moon, which would render space stations obsolete.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By freaqie on 11/5/2009 2:19:35 AM , Rating: 3
not only would they be rendered obsolete.
it would be much cheaper. also astronauts could stay longer (as there is some form of gravity so most negatie space side effects would be a lot weaker)
and it could become semi selfsupporting.
possibly with a bit of hard work, even profitable
(hotels , mining rare minerals etc etc)

the moon also has a lot of resources available.
so if they were able to extract those, only vital parts would need to be shipped there. (assuming metal or concrete or some form of building materials could be extracted)

and what about the moon as a step up into space.
it has much more potential then just going to mars...
again i think a moon base is a very good step.

and nevermid the prestige that we are the frst to colonize a planet for the first time in history, how bout that for prestige

those are just my two cents though

RE: Why start from scratch?
By CZroe on 11/5/09, Rating: 0
RE: Why start from scratch?
By Yeco on 11/5/2009 6:57:57 AM , Rating: 2
Space stations won't become obsolete, because on the moon there is no micro gravity like in space!! And believe me it won't be cheaper. Owke there is some gravity, but not enough to overcome the biological side effects. And then there is the fact that the moon isn't protected by anything form cosmic rays!
Isn't the constellation program technology form the sixties? Just use some parts of the shuttle and add some seats for more crew.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By callmeroy on 11/9/2009 11:21:35 AM , Rating: 2
"owke"...I read that as "OK" is that right? LOL

I have nothing constructive to add but that made me first glance I thought you were referring to some Native Indian or something. :)

I've never seen anyone use that word

carry on..

RE: Why start from scratch?
By dastruch on 11/5/2009 5:17:54 PM , Rating: 2
sounds like at least 145*10^11 cents to me... :)

i say go for it!

RE: Why start from scratch?
By spudis on 11/5/2009 5:25:34 AM , Rating: 1
Your sense of a government Mars mission is probably correct. It is a decades-long, multi-trillion dollar, flags-and-footprints PR stunt, with no long-lived legacy to show for it (as was the Apollo program). What we need is a new template of spaceflight, where we gradually and steadily build and expand a space-faring transportation infrastructure. That was the intent of the Vision for Space Exploration -- we are to go to the Moon to learn how to extract useful materials from the resources there (mostly water, air and rocket propellant) to expand and extend human reach in space. Only after we learn how to do that will we be ready for trips to the planets.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By Ringold on 11/5/2009 9:00:11 AM , Rating: 2
Can't we do the same thing with Mars, and in a slightly less hostile environment? We've been to the Moon, so whats the gain there? Propulsion technology exists to make the trip to Mars in months instead of years. Skipping the moon sounds like it'd provide the sort of experience no one yet has; long distance interplanetary travel, with the associated protection from the hazards of prolonged space travel and logistical issues that months in isolation present. Private companies, as far as I know the same planning on the orbital hotel, have already tested lunar surface construction techniques (in the desert outside Vegas). They've already tinkered with ideas about how to construct parts of lunar bases at Lagrange points and lower it to the moon, then bury them for protection. NASA going to the moon would just be doing, for far more money, what the private sector is slowly working on doing all on its own. If the governments involved in space (or any market), I feel like it should at least be blazing a trail that the private market can't yet do and may not otherwise attempt without someone else first showing it can be done and how to do it.

The main drawback I see to skipping the moon is, for a while, US citizens will look to the moon and know communists are up there and we aren't, but thats going to happen either way.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By Iaiken on 11/5/2009 11:51:33 AM , Rating: 3
Having been to the moon and having set up an off-planet operation are two totally different things. We have a hard enough time getting people off our planet with current technology. Without some form of staging area in space, it is ridiculous to entertain the idea of going from the surface of the earth to the surface of mars and back again.

You have to walk before you can run and when it comes to space travel we're still only at the crawling stage.

Additionally, there are so many aspects that go beyond the simple logistics of it.

The experiments on the Bathyscaphe Trieste with regard to the stresses on the human mind caused this type of isolated confinement with few others demonstrates the necessity of private space (no matter how small). Thus any sufficiently sized space vehicle for human interplanetary travel is going to have to be lifted into space in parts and assembled there. This means that some form of off-planet staging area is going to be an absolute necessity.

Speaking of near-earth logistics, the moon makes an ideal place for off-planet assembly as any astronaut who has space walked can tell you just how much of a pain in the ass it is to work in free fall. The moon offers a low-gravity environment and a surface upon which we can construct sheltered assembly areas and work environments.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By Ringold on 11/5/2009 4:55:41 PM , Rating: 2
I didn't say we may not need to assemble a craft in orbit. This is also not a new concept; NASA gave the idea of launching the command and service modules separately for lunar missions. If we can assemble the ISS, we can plug together modular spaceship components. I also didn't say it'd be easy; but then that is the only reason government should do it, not because its easy but because it is hard. (That last part sound familiar in the history of presidential speeches?)

Your best point may be if NASA really thinks sending components to the moon for assembly is ultimately cheaper than doing so in orbit. Otherwise, I'm not seeing a reason not to leave the moon to private enterprise and focus on going straight to Mars (from Earth orbit), tackling the issues we agree exist head-on: logistics, psychological issues, health issues, and propulsion.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By PrimarchLion on 11/5/2009 3:11:17 PM , Rating: 3
I think one of the primary reasons for building a moon base first is its close proximity. If something goes wrong, there is a chance for a rescue mission if one is prepared.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By TSS on 11/5/2009 7:40:42 AM , Rating: 2
Why mars is probably the same question they asked back in the 60's, only then it was "Why the moon?"

Because you can damnit. It inspires people.

Cutting edge is not doing something you've already done, or what's "possible".

RE: Why start from scratch?
By freeagle on 11/5/2009 9:35:35 AM , Rating: 2
The problem is that you spend a lot of money for a extremely difficult project, such as the trip to mars. This project will probably create very small ( if any ) infrastructure for future missions. This means, another such trip will cost a lot as well and the public wont be as eager to finance it. But if you put the money you have now to create viable facilities to make future missions easier ( and cheaper ), you could end up with several mars like missions, but with some delay.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By delphinus100 on 11/8/2009 11:37:28 PM , Rating: 2
Understand, I'm all in favor of a rationally done return to the Moon, and missions to Mars...

But 'inspiration' is at the bottom of my list.

I'm old enough to remember Apollo well (and was a space buff well before that), and it showed me that 'inspiration' lasts up until the second, maybe third mission (except for space enthusiasts who already care). And the public attention span is, if anything, shorter now than in the late 60's.

This is another argument for doing it in the most cost-effective way we can (which is not the direction we seem to be going now, with Constellation as it's currently configured), so that it doesn't require massive, ongoing public support (which tends to translate into Congressional support), and if anything stay below the public radar.

I don't know if anyone's 'inspired' by research in Antarctica, but neither does anyone complain about what it costs. That's largely because it's done with mature, economical transportation technologies that are also used in many other applications.

That's the point we need to get to in human spaceflight. What was said about emphasizing overall space transportation/propulsion technologies (that would let us reach the Moon and NEOs and Mars and beyond on a regular basis) was absolutely correct. (as well as more work on other important, but destination-agnostic technologies, like long-term life support, and combatting long-term microgravity effects and galactic cosmic ray/solar flare protection).

Those who excessively focus on the Moon or Mars, and argue with each other over their respective importance, except their common notion that they're 'tired of boring round-and-round in LEO' (as if we've done everything that could be done there) and 'dump the Shuttle' (without a better reusable launcher to replace it), are like mountaineers who want to go straight for the peak from their downtown hotel, when they don't even have a good way to reach the mountain and establish a fracking base camp...

RE: Why start from scratch?
By stromgald30 on 11/5/2009 1:49:09 PM , Rating: 2
One thing I've wondered since I started my internship at NASA was "Why reinvent the wheel?"

NASA was never optimized for operating something repeatedly. Every one of their programs has/needs a 'mission'. Once that mission is done, they go onto a new 'mission' and need to design new vehicles. That's the culture/philosophy of NASA . . . and in any large organization, it's very hard to change culture/philosophy.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By Kyanzes on 11/6/2009 10:20:11 AM , Rating: 2
A manned trip to the Mars could have significant importance. "Prestige first" is not solely about pride (though it's also important) but also means "technology first". Technology means strategic advantage. Etc.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By jmurbank on 11/6/2009 7:15:13 PM , Rating: 2

One thing I've wondered since I started my internship at NASA was "Why reinvent the wheel?" We have had working rockets since the 1960's capable of just about everything expected from the Aries. Russia has had a similar rocket as well, it seems that it would be most efficient to start with an old design and modernize it.

Another thing I've wondered is "Why Mars?" Really, it seems rather pointless to send humans to Mars other than to just say "Yay we did it!" Honestly I think there are higher priorities, like maintaining a base on the moon, which would render space stations obsolete.

Ares is using old rockets engines. Ares have an interchangeable rocket system for different missions and different payloads. NASA is not re-inventing the wheel this time like they did for the space shuttle and the re-usable lander, they are using rocket configurations similar to Apollo and Gemini missions. Also NASA is including additional features for safety. What is new is the enhancements that NASA made to the old equipment and the launch pad that will be used for Ares. NASA should really be done with Ares by the end of 2010.

It is not worthless to go to Mars. There is a difference sending robots and sending humans. Robots are labs, but humans include senses that robots can not match. To get an idea what I am explaining is if you read a book about the Grand Canyon or Yellow Stone National Park, it is a different feeling of going there to experience. A book can paint its own picture while you can paint an even bigger picture that is a lot more colorful than the book. Mars or any world will have the same effect even though most worlds are deserts.

One thing that comes to mind about NASA is that they are too comfortable and an a perfectionist. Being comfortable and an a perfectionist is a bad thing for progress.

RE: Why start from scratch?
By delphinus100 on 11/8/2009 11:00:37 PM , Rating: 2
"Honestly I think there are higher priorities, like maintaining a base on the moon, which would render space stations obsolete."

How can the Moon possibly make space stations 'obsolete?'

There's a great difference between the Moon (about three days away, requiring non-trivial propulsive flight down to and up from from its surface), and easily reached objects in Low Earth Orbit (potentially reachable in hours, requiring only the use of thrusters for rendezvous and docking).

The Moon has its own scientific, and potential economic value, but some things can be done best, or done only through long-term operations in LEO.

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