Sep 09 2009

Review panel says NASA needs money

Huntsville Times

By Shelby G. Spires

No exploration plan beyond Earth orbit with 2010 budget

A White House-appointed NASA review panel sent clear suggestions to President Barack Obama Tuesday for the future of the space agency.

Flying to the moon, landing on asteroids or planting a flag on Mars all require something that extends beyond human engineering: Money.

That's a commodity in short supply for federal programs, and it could keep NASA on the ground longer than expected, panel member Dr. Ed Crawley told The Times Tuesday.

"It's pretty clear NASA needs more money," Crawley said. "We basically said human exploration beyond low Earth orbit is not obtainable within the fiscal year 2010 budget. We did not find a credible plan that would fit within the budget."

A full draft of the report should be complete and on the president's desk by the end of the month, Crawley said.

The suggestions do not directly suggest that NASA cancel the Marshall Space Flight Center-managed Ares rockets in favor of any other launch vehicle.

However, the report makes a case for an improved space shuttle or commercial launch vehicles like the Decatur-built Delta IV.

Also, Mars is not set up as an immediate objective for NASA, Crawley said. "Mars is the ultimate destination, but not the best first destination," he said. "At present, it would be too hard and too long to go to Mars with a sustainable exploration program."

Other objectives would be to use the moon and asteroids as a proving ground to build technology and human experience "then go on to a Mars mission," Crawley said.

The 10-member panel strongly suggests keeping the International Space Station in use until 2020, ending the space shuttle when its current mission manifest is complete - no matter if delays stretch the flights out an additional year beyond 2010.

To Alabama's senior Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, any plan, suggestion or option cannot be accomplished without the help of Congress, he said in a statement sent to The Times.

"The Augustine Commission has had to accomplish a difficult task in a short period of time that will greatly influence the direction of human space flight for our nation," Shelby said. "If the work done by the Commission is to translate into a successful endeavor, the (Obama) administration should engage the Congress as it starts to devise a new path forward.

"Without such support, further delays in our manned space program will cede our leadership in exploration to Russia, China and other nations that have the capability and desire to go well beyond low earth orbit and the International Space Station."

The report's drafters say an extra $3 billion a year should be added to continue with Ares development or to develop any rocket for human space flight.

"The flip side of needing more money is that with the relative modest investment of $3 billion a year, then there is a meaningful plan and goals that can be accomplished," Crawley said.

The executive summary is not a shocking document, said NASAwatch.com creator Keith Cowing. Mostly, it is a rehash of three months of public hearings, he added.

"This is a Cliff Notes version of all the hearings. There are no surprises here. All the plot development will be in the final report, which they are writing as we speak," Cowing said. "What they say here is to come up with a goal of what your space program is supposed to do. Then you find out how to best accomplish those goals."