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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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Space Elevator?
By Litzner on 11/5/2009 6:59:02 AM , Rating: 4
I say don't worry about Luna or Mars at this point. Focus development on the space elevator, once you get that is drops costs drastically to do anything in space. Until we have a space elevator realistic space exploration by humans past Mars will be in question.

If I am correct the most expensive part is leaving earths gravity. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong in my opinion on the space elevator as I wouldn't not consider my self a expert in this subject.




RE: Space Elevator?
By 91TTZ on 11/5/2009 11:46:42 AM , Rating: 2
Luna?

I've seen it listed as that before, but I've never actually heard someone use it.


RE: Space Elevator?
By Viditor on 11/5/2009 8:41:37 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Luna?


Very popular in 1950s Sci Fi (I use the term myself). It's a good way of guaging the age of the speaker...:)

quote:
If I am correct the most expensive part is leaving earths gravity.


Absolutely correct...and there are several Space Elevator projects underway. The problem is that they will require Carbon Nanotube construction, which is still 1-2 decades away. But there's always the chance of an early breakthrough! :)


RE: Space Elevator?
By TMV192 on 11/5/2009 11:46:08 AM , Rating: 3
The problem is that after you stop them from laughing, you'll still have to wait 50 years


RE: Space Elevator?
By kattanna on 11/5/2009 12:31:24 PM , Rating: 2
aye.. but im still laughing


RE: Space Elevator?
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 11/5/2009 6:25:21 PM , Rating: 2
How about a space rope.... Like in gym class but into outer space. I would be a cheap way to get into space... Just climb. A great side benefit is the strength you gain from climbing the rope. Just do not slide down too fast that would be one H*ll of a rope burn. :)

A space elevator sounds like a great thing just I still can not imagine the amount of material it would require to build and then how does it stay up? Viagra? That is the amount of weight pulling down would be unbelievable.... then what if the unthinkable happens, it falls. What damage will that create?


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