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NASA panel: Human spaceflight in 'unsustainable trajectory'

Needs $3bn more for viable exploration program

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NASA's human spaceflight program appears headed on an "unsustainable trajectory" under its current budget, according to a committee charged with reviewing the US space program for the Obama administration.

While NASA has big plans to retire the Shuttle Program in 2011, de-orbit the ISS in 2016, and begin a fresh round of lunar surface exploration, there simply isn't enough money to go around. "It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursing goals that do not match allocated resources," the Review of US Human Flight Plans Committee report stated.

The committee, headed by retired aerospace executive Norm Augustine, issued an executive summary of its findings today, recommending the agency's budget be increased by $3 billion just to sustain a viable exploration program.

"Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 budget guideline," the panel stated. If NASA is indeed restricted to its current 2010 budget profile, the Committee claims one of two scenarios are available.

Under one option, NASA would focus its budget on sustaining the Shuttle program past its planned retirement in 2011 and maintaining sufficient funds to de-orbit the International Space Station in 2016. If constrained to this budget, the Ares I and Orion program would not be available until after the ISS is de-orbited. The heavy-lift Ares V rocket would also not be available until the late 2010s. "And worse, there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever," the report states.

A second option would be to extend the lifespan of the ISS until 2010 and include a lunar exploration program using Ares V. But the scenario assumes a Shuttle program retirement in 2011, holding the ISS in orbit until 2020, and the agency would not have the funding to develop the systems needed to land on or explore the moon.

The Committee also predicted that under current budget conditions, the country will be unable to launch astronauts into space for at least seven years after the Shuttle Program is retired.

"The original 2005 schedule showed Ares I and Orion available to support ISS in 2012, only two years after scheduled Shuttle retirement. The current schedule now shows that date as 2015," the report said. "An independent assessment of the technical, budgetary and schedule risk to the Constellation Program performed for the Committee indicates that an additional delay of at least two years is likely. This means that Ares I and Orion will not reach ISS before the Station’s currently planned termination, and the length of the gap in U.S. ability to launch astronauts into space will be no less than seven years."

If NASA's budget were increased by $3 billion annually, however, the Committee had several suggestions it deemed "more appropriate for an exploration program designed to carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit."

Recommendations include extending the life of the ISS well past when NASA plans to send the orbiting station crashing down into the Pacific.

"The Committee finds that the return on investment of ISS to both the United States and the international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life to 2020," the report stated. "It seems unwise to de-orbit the Station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life. Not to extend its operations would significantly impair U.S. ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships."

It also recommends commercial ventures be given better incentives to develop services for delivering crew to low-Earth orbit.

A full copy of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee summary is available here. ®

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