-- 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
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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.