President Obama has made his decision on the future direction of NASA, including scrapping the Ares I rocket in favor of a new heavy-lift launcher to carry astronauts beyond the moon. According to Science Insider, Obama made his decision after a Dec. 16 meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
Obama will also ask Congress to increase NASA's budget by $1 billion in 2011 to accommodate the new launcher and to upgrade NASA's fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.
NASA has spent almost $6.9 billion on its current plan to be back on the moon by 2020 to establish a lunar outpost for future space expeditions, and the agency continues to speed $300 million a month on the program. Former President George W. Bush introduced the moon program in the wake of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.
But, shortly after taking office, Obama ordered an outside review of NASA's program to return to the moon. The blue-ribbon panel of experts, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, conducted the review over the summer.
The Ares I-X is currently scheduled to become NASA's primary launch vehicle after the space shuttle is retired at the end of 2010. The rocket is designed to launch Orion spacecrafts into space for low-orbit flights to the ISS (International Space Station) and, eventually, the moon.
According to Science Insider, Obama wants to abandon the Ares I for a new heavy-lift rocket to be ready by 2018. In the interim, the ISS would be supplied by a commercially leased spacecraft such as SpaceX's Falcon 9. International partners would be asked to develop a lunar launcher while the United States focuses on a program "to take humans to the moon, asteroids and the moons of Mars," Science Insider said Dec. 17.
"The decision is not going to make anyone gasp," the publication quoted an unnamed source from within the White House as saying.
The Augustine review committee completed its work in September with the conclusion that the U.S. manned space program is underfunded with unrealistic goals.
"The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources," the executive summary (PDF) stated. "Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today."
The committee also said NASA's current plan to decommission the space shuttle fleet at the end of 2010 was unrealistic and the fleet should be funded through 2011. The panel said the projected flight rate through 2010 is nearly twice that of the actual flight rate since the Columbia disaster.
"Recognizing that undue schedule and budget pressure can subtly impose a negative influence on safety, the Committee finds that a more realistic schedule is prudent," the report stated. "With the remaining flights likely to stretch into the second quarter of 2011, the Committee considers it important to budget for Shuttle operations through that time."