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House panel questions new direction for space

NASA's embattled Constellation moon program, thought by many to be on life support in the face of ongoing budget cuts, is technically feasible and "soundly" managed, a key panel says.

NASA's embattled Constellation moon program, thought by many to be on life support in the face of ongoing budget cuts, is technically feasible, "soundly" managed, and capable of putting American astronauts back on the moon as planned in the 2020s, the chairman of a manned space review said Tuesday.

But if the Obama administration and Congress fail to restore some $3 billion in lost funding, he said, NASA will be unable to return to the moon or venture beyond the confines of low-Earth orbit.

A NASA graphic showing the proposed Ares 1 rocket intended to boost Orion crew capsules into low-Earth orbit. NASA

Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin and chairman of Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, told the House Committee on Science and Technology that he would not endorse any one of the panel's five options and their variants, but he agreed there should be "compelling reasons" to cancel a program, like Constellation, that is already in motion.

And neither he nor Edward Crawley, a panel member and engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who oversaw the development of the options submitted to the White House, offered any such compelling reasons.

"There were on our committee a number of people who actually built space flight hardware and their general consensus on the assessment of the Constellation program technically is it has problems, all real programs where you're really building hardware encounter developmental problems, but that we didn't see any...that were not surmountable with proper engineering talent and skill, which we believe NASA can bring to bear," Crawley said.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Science and Technology committee, observed that Constellation was a congressionally authorized program that represented a significant expenditure to date.

"I don't think you trade what you know for what you don't know if it's equal or a little bit better," Gordon said. "So are you prepared to say that one or all of the other options are substantially better than Constellation and worth having a major turn now?"

"I think it would be our view, just what you said, there should be a compelling reason to change an existing program," Augustine replied. "We believe the existing program, given adequate funds, is executable and would carry out its objectives."

Gordon and virtually every other committee member who spoke Tuesday questioned the wisdom of changing direction and expressed support for trying to come up with the money needed to turn Constellation into reality.

"Mr. Chairman, in many ways it's hard for me to understand why the president is seeking new options at all when there's been an agreed upon plan for several years," said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the committee's ranking Republican. "Why don't we just fund the program we've all agreed to? Why should multibillion-dollar bailouts of banks and insurance companies come at the expense of our talented scientists, our engineers, and technicians who make the impossible look easy?

"I think many of us think it would take a very small fraction of our federal budget, just tenths of one percent, to make a significant difference in our human spaceflight goals," Hall said. "But even if that level of funding is not forthcoming, we have to be very careful how we proceed because we have a lot at stake."

Mike Griffin, NASA's former administrator and the man in charge when the Constellation program was developed, put the debate in stark terms. Since 1994, he said, NASA's annual budget has suffered a 20 percent decline in real dollars.

"At this time a year ago, the original budget for exploration had already been eroded by some $12 billion to pay for other things," he said. "The budget submitted this past May erodes that further to the point where some $30 billion has, if those plans go forward, been removed from space exploration.

"The issue is money. That issue renders moot all other debate as to what other destinations we might pursue, whether they're the moon, near Earth asteroids, Mars or any debate about how we might get there. On the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, this is a sobering thought...I hope I'm not the only one who finds it shameful we're in this position."

The Constellation program was born in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. The Bush administration decided in January 2004 to finish the International Space Station and to retire the shuttle in 2010. At the same time, NASA was told to begin development of a replacement system that could ferry astronauts to and from the space station and eventually, on to the moon, a system that would be safer and less expensive to operate than the shuttle.

The long-range goal was establishment of Antarctica-type lunar research stations in the early 2020s where astronauts can live and work for months at a time.

NASA's answer to this new direction was the Constellation program. Two rockets were envisioned, the manned Ares 1, designed to boost Apollo-like Orion crew capsules to low-Earth orbit, and the unmanned Ares 5, a huge heavy lift rocket that will carry a four-person lunar lander into space.

The Bush administration did not give NASA much in the way of additional funding to pay for initial Constellation development and the agency was forced to cut back in other areas to kick start the new program.

Given the lack of funding up front, development of the Ares 1 has lagged and now won't be available until at least 2015. During the five-year gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of Ares 1/Orion, NASA will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at $50 million each, to ferry U.S. and international astronauts to and from the space station.

During the presidential campaign, Obama expressed support for the Constellation program and it's long-range goal of returning to the moon. But after his election, the Office of Management and Budget cut another $3.1 billion from NASA's long-range budget, money that was critical to initial development of the new Ares 5 booster. Those cuts, on top of earlier reductions, have left NASA in what the Augustine panel described as an untenable position.

"The reluctant bottom line conclusion of our committee is that the current program as it's being pursued is not executable, that we're on a path that will not lead to a useful, safe human exploration program and the reason for that is the mismatch between the tasks to be performed and the funds available to support those tasks," Augustine said Tuesday.

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee reviewed NASA's current plans, alternatives, and also considered how long the U.S. agency and its partners should operate the International Space Station. NASA currently has no money in its projected downstream budget to operate the space station beyond 2015.

In its executive summary--the group's final report is not yet complete--the panel did not make any recommendations. Instead, it listed five options, or architectures, and the pros and cons associated with each. The first two options assume NASA is forced to live within current 2010 budget projections.

In one, the shuttle is retired on schedule and the space station is deorbited in 2015 or 2016. Under that scenario, the panel concluded, NASA would not be able to return to the moon until the 2030s or later. In the other "constrained budget" case, the shuttle is retired, the station is extended through 2020, the Ares 1 is canceled and NASA relies instead on the commercial development of new rockets to to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit. Under that scenario, the panel said, a heavy lift rocket is delayed to the late 2020s and no money is available to develop lunar landing technologies.

The panel's final three options assume NASA's exploration budget is boosted by $3 billion and then allowed to grow each year at 2.4 percent to offset inflation.

Option No. 3 is basically NASA's Constellation program as currently envisioned, with shuttle retirement in early 2011 and no additional money for operation of the International Space Station past 2015. In that case, the panel concluded, NASA could, in fact, return to the moon in the mid 2020s.

Option No. 4 would extend the station through 2020 and retain the moon as the nation's primary target beyond low-Earth orbit. But it would rely on development of commercial access to low-Earth orbit. In one variant, the shuttle is retired and NASA builds an Ares 5 Lite to launch crew and cargo to the moon. In the other, the shuttle program is extended and a new heavy lifter based on shuttle technology is developed for moon flights.

Option No. 5 represents a so-called "flexible path" architecture that would explore the inner solar system with long-duration flights to a variety of targets, ranging from lunar orbit to the moons of Mars. The long-range goals could include lunar landings and eventual flights to Mars itself. This scenario assumes development of commercial launchers, shuttle retirement and no station extension.

Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), chairwoman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, was critical of the Augustine panel's options, saying "I thought we were going to take a hard, cold, sobering look at the Constellation program and tell us exactly what we needed to do here in Congress, with our budget, in order to maximize the chances of success. But that's not what I see."

"So I guess I'll ask my colleagues on this committee, what are we going to do with this report? I know that we are going to see more details. But in the absence of mismanagement or technological show stoppers...none of which the Augustine panel has indicated has occurred in this program, can any of us in good conscience recommend canceling the exploration systems development programs that Congress has funded and supported over the past four years?"

Giffords said she did not see "the logic of scrapping what the nation has spent years and billions of dollars to develop."

Keeping the $75 billion International Space Station operational through at least 2020 seems to be a given regardless of which option is ultimately approved. In his written remarks to the Science and Technology Committee, Griffin reflected the views of many when he said "any discussion of decommissioning and deorbiting the ISS is irrelevant to the consideration of serious programmatic options."