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While this week saw NASA successfully launch its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite missions to the Moon - designed as an exploratory prelude to a human return to our satellite - a senior NASA official claimed on Wednesday that existing plans to venture beyond low-Earth orbit were doomed without extra cash or new technologies.

Speaking at a Washington DC public meeting of the human spaceflight review committee, space shuttle programme manager John Shannon described the Constellation programme, comprising the Ares I and V and the Orion capsule, as a "viable architecture" but one which had "not been funded to the level that we would need to see it through".

He said: "The congressional budget numbers that have been provided to NASA basically took away the lunar programme."

New Scientist notes that the White House budget request for NASA "proposes to freeze the agency's spending between 2011 and 2014 - eliminating billions of dollars of growth envisioned for those years in previous requests".

To add to the agancy's woes, the House Committee on Appropriations "cut $670m from NASA's budget for exploration, which provides funds for Constellation, a 17 per cent drop from the White House request of $3.96bn".

Shannon offered the alternative fall-back "Heavy Lift Vehicle", based on existing space-shuttle lifting technology which could project a crew capsule to orbit or, if modified, carry a lander to the Moon.

Stephen Metschan, representing the alternative alternative DIRECT plan - whose "Jupiter" rocket is also based on the shuttle-launch "big fuel tank and solid booster concept" - agreed that Constellation was in trouble.

He said NASA was "unlikely to get the money it needs to develop the Ares V, which is the more powerful of the two rockets, and is needed in NASA's current plan for human missions to the Moon".

Metschan insisted that Jupiter had the clout to reach the Moon. He urged: "We really only have the money to develop one launch system…so lets' make it as capable and as expandable as we can."

SpaceX big cheese Elon Musk, meanwhile, came forward to suggest a way of freeing up funds for whichever technology eventually carries mankind to the Moon and beyond: Let the private sector do the "domestic" jobs.

Musk, whose company is developing the Falcon 9 rocket as part of a deal to supply the International Space Station in the post-shuttle era, said: "The reality is NASA is not going to get a giant budget increase. It seems like the only way we're going to do exciting things in human spaceflight is if commercial companies handle the low-Earth orbit stuff and NASA handles the stuff beyond low-Earth orbit."

The human spaceflight review committee's report is due in August. ®

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