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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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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...

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