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Ares 1-X launch; October 28, 2009  (Source: NASA)
Obama's 2011 budget proposal is expected to face stiff opposition

America's space program is at a crossroads. This year, the Space Shuttle fleet is expected to be retired after nearly 30 years of ferrying astronauts and equipment into space. In addition, there have been calls to have its immediate successor -- the Ares I launch vehicle which would be topped with an Orion crew capsule -- shelved altogether.

A 155-page report issued in November 2009 by the Augustine Panel made a number of recommendations on which direction to steer NASA in the future. The recommendations included 1) hitching rides into space using spacecraft from other nations or private contractors, 2) keeping the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs alive, albeit in more limited roles, and 3) shifting the focus from returning to the moon and instead aiming for Mars.

The Augustine Panel also made it clear that the estimated $145 billion cost to return to the moon by 2020 would not be possible given NASA's $18.7 billion yearly allowance for all operations.

According to a new report by Space News, it appears that the Ares 1 launch vehicle and the Orion crew capsule may be put on the chopping block. President Obama is not expected to give NASA the $1 billion increase in its yearly budget that had been hoped for to help further develop the Ares program.

President Obama's 2011 budget for NASA aligns closely with the recommendations of the Augustine Panel. The budget calls for the the use of commercial spacecraft and rockets to carry astronauts into space instead of relying on the behind schedule, cost-overrun Ares program. Another Augustine Panel carryover is the decision to bypass the moon and instead gun for near-Earth asteroids and onward to Mars.

The Wall Street Journal says that the efforts to initialize the private sector -- including startup firms -- for carrying astronauts into space will be a "multi-year, multi-billion-dollar initiative". Private firms are expected to receive roughly $200 million during the first phase of the program. The total amount doled out within the first five years could balloon to more than $3.5 billion according to sources familiar with the details of the budget. The funds for the private ventures would be pulled from NASA's yearly $18.7 billion budget.

Industry stalwarts like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are expected to benefit from this new initiative, but smaller firms like Space Exploration Technologies would also be vying for NASA dollars.

Not surprisingly, there is opposition to the there mere mention of NASA outsourcing crew vehicles to the private sector. Charles Precourt, a senior exec at Alliant Tech Systems remarked that such proposals are "really radical" and that they are "extremely high risk". In addition, Precourt said that whatever option is selected for the future direction of NASA must be accompanied by a subsequent increase in its budget.

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NASA needs to show some progress
By taber on 1/25/2010 1:37:19 AM , Rating: 2
Seems to me this report is mostly just recommending doing the safe things that has gotten NASA nowhere recently. My takes on their 3 points:

1) Hitching rides should just be a bridge to developing a shuttle replacement and helping with capacity. I'm all for cheap private industry, but let's wait to pay for that until they can provide what NASA does for cheaper. There's no guarantee the private sector will be more like McDonalds than Blackwater.

2) The shuttle lifecycle is at the end, hopefully they can come up with something safer and more efficient 30 years later. The ISS doesn't need to be government funded forever, let the private industry take some costs if we have to. This chart shows why the shuttle and ISS need to go away if NASA wants to accomplish tasks that excite the public more.

3) Go to the moon first. It's a good stepping stone for technologies and will happen much faster than Mars anyway.

I admit my points are aimed more at engaging public interests than achieving scientific accomplishments, but my idea is the more NASA interests the public, the more money they get and the more science they can pursue. I'm also expecting retiring the Shuttle and coming up with a replacement will produce something more efficient.

RE: NASA needs to show some progress
By nafhan on 1/25/2010 10:52:11 AM , Rating: 2
Mostly agree with you.
On 1: if the private sector can provide transportation it will almost certainly be cheaper. Also, I think improving the space abilities of the private sector is a good long term investment as they are more likely to discover other uses for the technology.
On 3: I'm worried that skipping the moon and going to Mars directly is the first step in canceling the whole program one piece at a time. I.e. it's less about going directly to Mars and more about getting rid of short term goals.

"The Space Elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing" -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke
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