Friday, August 21, 2009

Rude awakening for NASA's human space-flight dream

Editorial: No more small steps, let alone giant leaps?

IN A presentation that was likened to pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz, former astronaut Sally Ride stood before a crowd several blocks from the White House last week and unveiled the consequences of years of NASA scrimping.


2020 vision, or just an illusion? (Image: NASA)
Ride and a committee of nine other space-industry professionals were tasked by President Barack Obama in May to review NASA's plans for human space flight. The meeting, the final public gathering before the formal report is due at the end of August, painted a bleak picture of an agency mired in financial woes.

The US's mission to return to the moon, with flights scheduled to begin by 2020, will have to be put off to beyond 2028 if NASA is stuck with its current budget, Ride warned. And the agency's replacement for the 30-year-old space shuttle will not fly its first crew into space until almost three years after the planned retirement of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016, when the outpost will be dismantled and its constituent pieces sent careening into the ocean.

"It will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring in human space flight," said committee chair Norman Augustine, previously CEO of Lockheed Martin.

NASA has ended up in this position through adhering to a vision set in 2004 by President George W. Bush, to take astronauts to far-flung destinations, beginning with a return to the moon.

To meet this goal, engineers have been working on two new vehicles to take humans into space - the Apollo-inspired Orion crew capsule and its launcher, the Ares I rocket, plus the Ares V heavy-lift rocket for cargo and lunar landers.

But while the agency has publicly stuck to the 2020 target, it has taken a series of financial hits. NASA has lost about $10 billion in total since Bush announced his vision, says Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington DC, who was not on the panel. That includes budget cuts and some $7.8 billion in unanticipated or underestimated costs the agency has absorbed, mainly for restoring the shuttle programme after the Columbia shuttle disaster and flying extra missions to complete the ISS.

Obama's first budget for the agency includes further cuts - a one-time hit of more than $3 billion, taken away from the agency's human space-flight programme from 2011 to 2013.

The president's budget came with a caveat that this cut could be undone depending on the outcome of the review. When the budget was released in February, "one of the things I said at the time is that if this [$3 billion loss] becomes permanent, it's over, there is no manned exploration programme," says Pace. "The programme was already operating very close to the edge."
If this $3 billion budget cut becomes permanent, it's over, there is no manned exploration programme

Now it seems that the $3 billion would not be enough anyway. The committee estimates NASA will need a much larger infusion, of about $50 billion over and above current projections in the next decade, to meet its targets.

What the committee has done, says John Logsdon, a space-policy analyst at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, who was not on the review panel, "is make it clear we've been living an illusion"; that the US has been "talking about going somewhere, but not providing the resources to do it".

Pace also cautions that slowing NASA's plans too much could eventually derail the programme. "The architecture was designed in such a way that you can trade time for money, but only up to a point," he says. "If you keep pushing and stretching, not only do the costs [go] up, but the people evaporate."

The committee is expected to provide Obama with a range of options, including alternate vehicles as well as deep-space targets, such as nearby asteroids and the Lagrangian points of the Earth-sun system. Regardless of the destinations, or the rockets chosen to reach them, Logsdon says, if the US wants to go beyond low-Earth orbit, or extend the life of the ISS, then "more money has to be provided".

Editorial: No more small steps, let alone giant leaps?

20 August 2009 by Rachel Courtland

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