Obama Space Panel Pans Moon Plans

An Obama-appointed committee to review NASA's future concludes the space agency is on an "unsustainable trajectory." The panel presents options to the White House, including spending billions of dollars more on the space program, international partnerships, commercial spacecraft and extending the life of the space shuttle program and the International Space Station.

The U.S. manned space program is underfunded with unrealistic goals, a presidential review panel appointed by President Obama told the White House Sept. 8 in an executive summary. The 10-person panel chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine said for the United States to maintain a meaningful human spaceflight program, another $3 billion annually is needed, international cooperation is essential and private spacecraft should be considered.
NASA has spent almost $6.9 billion on a 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 a month on the program. Former President George W. Bush introduced the moon program in the wake of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.
The Augustine panel largely dismissed the program.
"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 states. "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 noted that NASA's current plan to decommission the space shuttle fleet at the end of next year is unrealistic and should be funded through 2011. The panel said that 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 states. "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."
The committee also said the use of private spacecraft should be considered in any future planning for NASA as well as the pursuit of international partnerships. "There is now a burgeoning commercial space industry. If we craft the space architecture to provide opportunities to this industry, there is the potential-not without risk-that the costs to the government would be reduced," the report notes.
As for international partnerships, the report adds, "Many nations have aspirations in space, and the combined annual budgets of their space programs are comparable to NASA's. If the United States is willing to lead a global program of exploration, sharing both the burden and benefit of space exploration in a meaningful way, significant benefits could follow."
According to NASA's current plans, the International Space Station will be retired at the end of 2015, another conclusion that the Augustine panel disputed.
"The Committee finds that the return on investment of ISS to both the United States and the international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life to 2020," the report states. "It seems unwise to de-orbit the Station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life."
The panel also stressed it was only presenting the Obama administration with options. The White House's only official comment on the report was: "Until the options are thoroughly considered, it would be premature for anyone to draw conclusions from the committee's work. The President will consult with senior advisors, including the NASA Administrator, before making his final decisions."