The White House plans an outside review of NASA's program to return to the moon. The 90-day inquiry will re-examine NASA's replacement plans for the space shuttle fleet, currently scheduled for retirement late in 2010, and whether it might be better to bypass the moon in favor of missions farther out into the solar system.
NASA has spent almost $6.9 billion on the plan to be back on the moon by 2020 to establish a lunar outpost for future space expeditions, and the agency continues to spend $300 million per month on the program. Former President George W. Bush introduced the moon program in the wake of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.
"It's a thorough review," NASA Acting Administrator Chris Scolese told the Associated Press at a NASA budget briefing May 7. "Clearly if we are on the wrong path, we should change. If you are asking me if I think we're on the wrong path, no, I don't."
Scolese, though, signaled to Congress on April 29 that NASA was wavering about the 2020 target date.
"We're still looking at options for what do we mean by the moon. Do we mean a colony on the moon? That's clearly very expensive," Scolese told a House Appropriations subcommittee. "It will probably be less than an outpost on the moon, but where it fits between sorties-single trips to the moon, to various parts-and an outpost is really going to be dependent on the studies that we're going to be doing."
According to reports, the studies call for largely bypassing the moon for deeper space travel.
A blue-ribbon panel of experts will conduct the review, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. "I am a real believer in the value of this nation's human spaceflight activities and will do everything I can to provide the information needed to help the country maintain the spectacular arc of progress NASA has fueled for five decades," Augustine said in a statement.
At the NASA budget briefing, Scolese said Obama's 2010 NASA budget request of $18.69 billion will allow NASA to "support a balanced portfolio of priorities in space exploration, Earth and space science, and aeronautics research."
Obama's NASA budget also shuts down the space shuttle program in late 2010, but fully funds the eight remaining flights to completely build out the International Space Station. Budget documents released May 7 even allow for a ninth mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station if the first eight can be "safely and affordably completed in calendar year 2010."