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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: Consider this...
By Amiga500 on 11/5/2009 12:45:14 PM , Rating: 3
I had a very quick flick through...

To say I was concerned at the manner in which options were presented would be an understatement. Within the conclusion section, there was a recommendation that NASA should not be it's own supplier - and that was encompassing all options.

That is tantamount to recommending work be contracted out to private industry... and funnily enough... the first two names on the panel - both ex-CEOs of aerospace companies. I didn't bother looking at the resumes further.

There is bias in there - even if the panel was supposed to be neutral.

RE: Consider this...
By randomly on 11/5/2009 2:03:46 PM , Rating: 2
You may not realize it but NASA already contracts out more than 80% to commercial companies so going to 100% is not that big a change. The arguments to have NASA focus on specifying contract requirements and letting commercial companies fulfill them for fixed contracts are compelling.

NASA has historically has had a lot of problems with program creeps and delays. Cost control is difficult to maintain if you are your own supplier, it's better to have a disconnect between the group specifying the requirements and the ones designing and building the equipment in the most cost effective manner.

This can clearly be seen in NASA and other government divisions as well as in private industry. It's a well recognized phenomenon.

RE: Consider this...
By Amiga500 on 11/5/2009 3:03:11 PM , Rating: 1
If 80% of the equipment is already subcontracted...

Why do they have such a big problem with cost creep?

Can't have your cake and eat it dude. :-)

RE: Consider this...
By randomly on 11/5/2009 3:52:13 PM , Rating: 3
Because NASA keeps it's hands fully involved with the systems development and the features and mission specs keep drifting.

An example is the Marshall Space flight center trying to do the design of the ARES I and V in house. MSFC hasn't designed a rocket in decades, they haven't designed an upperstage in over 40 years. The real rocket design expertise lies in Boeing, Lockmart, and ULA. Lockheeds current Centaur upperstage is considerably higher performance than what MSFC is designing for ARES V simply because MSFC doesn't have the expertise to design light weight common bulkhead upperstages like Lockeed does who have been refining their designs for decades.

We don't need a duplication of rocket design teams. NASA should contract out what it can and focus on those research and development areas that are not already covered by commercial companies. Basic research, science, mission planning, mission requirements, system specifications and requirements, etc.

There is a limited amount of money available for NASA, we need to make the most efficient use of it to get the most benefit. We need a more efficient management structure, we need to lower the fixed costs at NASA, we need to make maximum use of existing facilities and infrastructure, We need to spend less money on developing launch systems and more of it on actual missions.

RE: Consider this...
By Ringold on 11/5/2009 5:10:18 PM , Rating: 2
If 80% of the equipment is already subcontracted... Why do they have such a big problem with cost creep? Can't have your cake and eat it dude. :-)

There's a couple other factors the other guy didn't specifically mention that allow him to have his cake and eat it too. Namely, the cozy relationship between NASA, LockMart and a small number of other regular firms. Markets with few competitors are less efficient. Giving SpaceX and other 'new space' companies a little support and a fair shake would go a ways towards changing that.

Don't know what about economic history leads you to think a government agency can ever, especially over the long term, be more efficient than private enterprise. At the end of the day, the goal of business it to provide the most value for the least amount of money, whereas the goal of a bureaucrat is his own career and prestige, not what the actual nominal goal of his agency is. Businessmen always know they have limited amounts of money (and government contractors would too if the government handled contracts in a sane manner). Bureaucrats know they can just ask for more from the government, and governments know no spending limit. (For evidence, I reference current budget deficits across the OECD)

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