Reduced budget threatens manned space options

A presidential panel says NASA's current budget is not nearly sufficient for the agency's plans to return to the moon by the early 2020s.

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston--A presidential panel wrapping up a review of future U.S. manned space flight options delivered a grim assessment Wednesday, showing NASA's current plan to retire the shuttle, finish the space station and return to the moon by the early 2020s is not remotely feasible without a significant restoration of previously cut funding.

In the absence of a major spending increase, "our view is that it will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area," said Norman Augustine, chairman of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

Augustine's committee was set up by the Obama administration to examine NASA's current plans for retiring the shuttle, completing the space station, and returning to the moon as well as alternative strategies for moving beyond low-Earth orbit.

Anticipated funding versus currently planned budget - a $3 billion annual shortfall - threatens NASA's planned return to the moon by the early 2020s. NASA

The committee also is assessing how long NASA and its partners should operate the International Space Station. NASA currently has no money in its projected downstream budget to operate the $100 billion lab complex beyond 2015.

The Augustine committee believes the station cannot be operated without direct U.S. mission control and management and that it will cost some $1.5 billion to safely drive the huge complex out of orbit at the end of its life, whenever that might be.

NASA's current long-range plan, developed by the Bush administration in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, is to complete the space station, retire the shuttle fleet, and develop a Apollo-like Orion crew capsule that will be launched to the station by new Ares 1 rockets.

During the gap between shuttle operations and the debut of Ares-1/Orion, U.S. astronauts will have to hitch rides to the station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. NASA managers have assumed all along the station program would be extended and Ares 1/Orion would be used to deliver crews and supplies.

NASA also plans to develop a huge new unmanned heavy lift rocket called the Ares 5 that eventually will boost Orion capsules and Altair lunar landers to the moon for long-duration exploration. The Orion capsule, Ares rockets and lunar landers are the central pieces in NASA's Constellation program.

But during a final public hearing Wednesday in Washington, the Augustine panel provided a sobering look at NASA's projected budget and the requirements of various manned space flight scenarios.

Considering the Constellation program as the "program of record," panel member and former astronaut Sally Ride said NASA would need an additional $50 billion or so through 2020 to implement the program as currently planned. This scenario is known as the "unconstrained budget" case.

Former astronaut Sally Ride confers with manned space committee Chairman Norman Augustine before the start of a final public hearing Wednesday in Washington. NASA

It assumes the shuttle is retired on schedule and that the space station is deorbited in early 2016, an option no one on the panel seems to favor. In that scenario, the new Orion/Ares 1 system would have no destination until the Ares 5 heavy lifter debuted and moon flights began after 2021.

"In the unconstrained budget, Orion and Ares 1 arrive shortly after ISS is deorbited," Ride said. "And then you get human lunar return in 2021."

Assuming NASA is forced to live within the 2010 budget guidelines provided by the Obama administration, the Ares 5 heavy lift moon rocket would not be ready until the 2028 timeframe.

"You get, again, Orion and Ares 1 capability of crew to LEO (low-Earth orbit) a couple of years after ISS is gone, so there's nothing for Ares 1 and Orion to go to," Ride said. "You do get heavy lift (Ares 5) out in 2028, but you'll notice there are no lunar systems that have been developed, there was not enough money to even start the lunar systems.

"So you have a heavy lift vehicle in 2028 but absolutely nothing to put in it to send to the moon. So this says it pretty well. You cannot do this program on this budget. If you want to do something, you have to have the money to do it."

The Office of Management and Budget extended cuts initiated in NASA's fiscal 2009 budget, lopping more than $3 billion from NASA's long-range budget projections--money needed for development of the Ares 5 heavy lifter--last spring, before the Augustine panel was formed.

Putting that $3 billion a year back in the budget would put the Constellation program back on track for a return to the moon in the 2020s, but it would still require the termination of space station operations in early 2016.

"We had quite a discussion about what budget line to choose," Ride said of the "enhanced budget" scenario. "We decided to kind of split the difference. We didn't want to make that budget line too small because then we were afraid we would not be able to accomplish any exploration. We didn't want to make it too large because then we would just be laughed off the stage.

"So it ramps up slowly to $3 billion a year over the budget that we've been given. Then it stays at a constant $3 billion a year over that budget out until 2020 and then we allow that redline to grow with inflation at a rate of 2.4 percent per year."

Under that scenario, NASA could return astronauts to the moon in the 2025 timeframe, resulting in a program very similar to what was originally envisioned for Constellation.

But even an additional $3 billion a year would not cover space station operations past 2015. NASA's international partners in the project--Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency--want to extend station operations at least through 2020, a goal Augustine panel members endorsed today.

If the White House ultimately adopts an "ISS-focused" approach, development of the Ares 1 rocket likely would be suspended because money needed for the booster's development would be funneled into space station operations instead. Under this scenario, the Ares 1 would not be available until near the end of the station's life.

Instead, the Augustine panel favors development of commercial rockets and capsules to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, a major departure from past practice.

Along with presenting options for lunar exploration and extension of the space station, the Augustine panel also is assessing the tradeoffs associated with flying one or two shuttle missions a year past 2011 to reduce the gap before new rocket systems are developed.

Finally, the panel is assessing options for deep space exploration that might bypass the moon in favor of near-Earth asteroids, lunar reconnaissance flybys and even flybys of Mars, with "off ramps" for development of systems for use on the lunar surface and eventual manned landings on Mars.

In this family of scenarios, a slightly different version of the Ares 5 would be used and the rocket would be "man rated" to carry astronauts. The Ares 1 rocket would not be developed for any of these cases.

"We kept coming up with a common theme, which is this budget is very, very, very hard to fit and still have an exploration program," Ride said. "In fact, we are still looking for an existence proof that we can actually find one. We haven't found one yet, but we're still looking."

The panel agreed that Mars is the ultimate objective for human spaceflight in the foreseeable future, but members decided to stop short of suggesting budgets or timetables, concluding manned flights to Mars are simply beyond the scope of current planning.

Augustine said he plans to brief the Office of Management and Budget on the proposed options Friday. The commission's report is scheduled to be completed by the end of the month. When the Obama administration might act on the options is unknown, but the goal of the review was to assess scenarios before the next budget cycle this fall.

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About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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