Print 46 comment(s) - last by callmeroy.. on Nov 9 at 11:21 AM

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.

Comments     Threshold

This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

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.

"Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn." -- Seagate CEO Bill Watkins

Latest Headlines

Most Popular ArticlesAre you ready for this ? HyperDrive Aircraft
September 24, 2016, 9:29 AM
Leaked – Samsung S8 is a Dream and a Dream 2
September 25, 2016, 8:00 AM
Yahoo Hacked - Change Your Passwords and Security Info ASAP!
September 23, 2016, 5:45 AM
A is for Apples
September 23, 2016, 5:32 AM
Walmart may get "Robot Shopping Carts?"
September 17, 2016, 6:01 AM

Copyright 2016 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki