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NASA braces for manned space review

Reeling from more than $3 billion in projected budget cuts through 2013, engineers working to built a post-shuttle rocket system are bracing for a critical outside assessment.

Reeling from projected budget cuts totaling more than $3 billion through 2013, NASA managers and engineers working to build a post-shuttle rocket system for an eventual return to the moon are bracing for a critical review that could set the agency on a different course.

The review was ordered by the Obama administration. The chairman of the independent review panel charged with evaluating NASA's post-shuttle manned space program said Friday he will bring an open mind and "go where the facts lead" in assessing the technical and economic feasibility of the space agency's current manned space program.

Norman Augustine, former chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, said the "Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans" committee also will assess alternatives, including different rocket systems and alternative targets for exploration. The team's report is expected by August.

Concept drawing of Orion crew capsule and moon lander in lunar orbit. NASA

"We are planning to spend billions of dollars on the human space flight program and it's wise to be sure we're spending that the way we should," he told reporters in a teleconference. "New information becomes available all the time. And similarly, we have a new administration and it would probably be imprudent on their part not to examine this major of a program to be sure such a long term undertaking is still on a course that makes sense to them."

The cost of NASA's manned space program--and ongoing efforts by the Office of Management and Budget to cut spending--is at the heart of the review, announced Thursday when the Obama administration's fiscal 2010 budget request was unveiled.

"I think what it boils down to is we're being told there's no sense in being unrealistic and putting together a program that can't possibly be afforded, and we've been given some guidance," Augustine said. "I think one of the chronic problems NASA's encountered over the years has been that it usually had more programs than it had money. That can be dangerous when you're doing something as difficult as NASA does.

"So as we go through this evaluation, if we were to find there were reasons the budget didn't make sense in any way, I can assure you we would not be bashful about pointing that out, and I suspect the administration would want to know that anyway."

The Obama administration is asking Congress for $18.7 billion in funding for NASA in 2010, a watershed year for the civilian space agency as it tries to complete assembly of the International Space Station and retire the space shuttle fleet after just nine more flights.

NASA is designing a new rocket, called the Ares 1, and an Apollo-style Orion capsule to replace the shuttle, but the new system will not be ready for routine use until 2015. During the five years between the shuttle's retirement next year and the debut of Ares 1/Orion, NASA will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz rockets to get U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

NASA's long-range goal, set by the Bush administration, is to return to the moon by 2020, using Ares 1/Orion spacecraft to carry astronauts to orbit and then new heavy-lift Ares 5 rockets to boost the astronauts and lunar landers to the moon. The new rocket systems are the central elements of what NASA calls the Constellation program.

But funding has been a critical issue from the beginning. Congress and the Bush administration, which put NASA on its current course, did not provide the funding necessary to significantly reduce the gap between shuttle retirement and first flight of Ares 1/Orion.

The Obama administration's 2010 budget includes a near-term funding boost of $630 million for Constellation, thanks in part to about $1 billion routed to NASA as part of the economic Recovery Act.

But the administration's predicted budgets through 2013 show an overall cut of $3.1 billion for the exploration systems directorate in charge of Constellation, cuts that have sent shock waves through the NASA community.

"That's the real story," a senior space manager, who asked not to be named, said of NASA's Thursday budget briefing. "It's like that Sherlock Holmes thing, the real story is the dog that didn't bark in the night...If the three-plus billion dollars in the out years, if that cut stands, then there's no moon by 2020 and maybe none at all."

The Obama administration ordered the Augustine review of NASA's ongoing manned space exploration program against this backdrop, prompting speculation that budget pressures could lead to a major change of course. It's not yet known how any such a change might affect the gap between shuttle and any follow-on spacecraft, or whether the moon will even remain NASA's primary target.

"I must confess, as an individual, I'm not thrilled with the fact that we have a gap," Augustine said. "But we have what we have...There are things that could be done, probably, that would shorten the gap, there are some things one might do that would lengthen the gap. But certainly, an objective, I think, of anybody would be to balance the various pros and cons of whatever is proposed against the impact on the gap, among other things, and recognizing that extending the gap is probably not a desirable thing. On the other hand, and I'm not making predictions here because I don't know the outcome, it's not something that's written in stone, either."

A longer version of this story is available on the CBS News Space Place web site.