NASA's future: Now the space battle begins

Augustine Committee says Mars still the ultimate destination; Space Shuttle might get second life, but money talks

NASA's Ares rocket, ready to test
When it comes down to it, NASA is the most accomplished space organization in the world but its human spaceflight activities are at a tipping point, primarily due to a mismatch of goals and money.

That was the conclusion of the Augustine Review of United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee report delivered to the White House today.  The report's 157-pages worth of findings will now be debated and in the end, dictate the future of NASA and space flight operations.

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 According to the report, NASA's fundamental conundrum is that within the current structure of the budget, NASA essentially has the resources either to build a major new system or to operate one, but not to do both. This is the root cause of the gap in capability of launching crew to low-Earth orbit under the current budget and will likely be the source of other gaps in the future. Either additional funds need to be made available or a far more modest program involving little or no exploration needs to be adopted, the repot stated. 

The commission seems to say space exploration is a worth-while endeavor but the way it is accomplished and the way NASA approaches it need to be radically changed. 

So what are some of those changes? From the Augustine report, some of the most important include:

  •  International partnerships: The US can lead a bold new international effort in the human exploration of space. If international partners are actively engaged, including on the "critical path" to success, there could be substantial benefits to foreign relations and more overall resources could become available to the human spaceflight program.  
  • Short-term Space Shuttle planning: The remaining Shuttle manifest should be flown in a safe and prudent manner without undue schedule pressure. This manifest will likely extend operation into the second quarter of FY 2011. 
  • The human-spaceflight gap: Under current conditions, the gap in US ability to launch astronauts into space will stretch to at least seven years. The Committee did not identify any credible approach employing new capabilities that could shorten the gap to less than six years. The only way to significantly close the gap is to extend the life of the Space Shuttle Program. 
  • Extending the International Space Station: The return on investment to both the United States and our international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of the life of the ISS. A decision not to extend its operation would significantly impair US ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships. 
  • Heavy lift: A heavy-lift launch capability to low-Earth orbit, combined with the ability to inject heavy payloads away from the Earth, is beneficial to exploration. It will also be useful to the national security space and scientific communities. The Committee reviewed: the Ares family of launchers; Shuttle derived vehicles; and launchers derived from the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle family. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, trading capability, life-cycle costs, maturity, operational complexity and the "way of doing business" within the program and NASA.
  • Commercial launch of crew to low-Earth orbit: Commercial services to deliver crew to low-Earth orbit are within reach. While this presents some risk, it could provide an earlier capability at lower initial and life-cycle costs than government could achieve. A new competition with adequate incentives to perform this service should be open to all US aerospace companies. This would let NASA focus on more challenging roles, including human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit based on the continued development of the current or modified Orion spacecraft.
  • Technology development for exploration and commercial space: Investment in a well-designed and adequately funded space technology program is critical to enable progress in exploration. Exploration strategies can proceed more readily and economically if the requisite technology has been developed in advance. This investment will also benefit robotic exploration, the US commercial space industry, the academic community and other US government users. 
  • Pathways to Mars: Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration of the inner solar system; but it is not the best first destination. If humans are ever to live for long periods on another planetary surface, it is likely to be on Mars. But Mars is not an easy place to visit with existing technology and without a substantial investment of resources.  The options here include:

-Mars First, with a Mars landing, perhaps after a brief test of equipment and procedures on the Moon.

-Moon First, with lunar surface exploration focused on developing the capability to explore Mars.

-A Flexible Path to inner solar system locations, such as lunar orbit, Lagrange points, near-Earth objects and the moons of Mars, followed by exploration of the lunar surface and/or Martian surface. 

The report comes at a time when NASA is about to test one of the largest and most complicated parts of its future rocket, the Ares I-X.  The launch vehicle test is slated for Oct. 27. The flight test will provide NASA with an early opportunity to test and prove flight characteristics, hardware, facilities and ground operations associated with the Ares I. 

Ares has had significant technical and design challenges according to experts.  First off it has had a weight problem and NASA needs to eliminate vibrations during launch and other challenges.  NASA estimates that Ares I and its Orion system represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the overall Constellation program through 2020. 

Augustine said of Constellation: The estimated cost of the Ares I launch vehicle development increased as NASA determined that the original plan to use the Space Shuttle main engines on the Ares I upper stage would be too costly. But the replacement engine had less thrust and inferior fuel economy, so the first-stage solid rockets had to be modified to provide more total impulse. This in turn contributed to a vibration phenomenon, the correction of which has yet to be fully demonstrated. This is the nature of complex development programs-with budgets that are far more likely to decrease than increase. 

Complicating matters further, insofar as the Constellation Program is  concerned, this Committee has concluded that the Shuttle Program will almost inevitably extend into FY 2011 in order to fly the existing manifest and that there are strong arguments for the extension of the International Space Station for another five years beyond the existing plan. These actions, if implemented, place demands of another $1.1 billion and $13.7 billion, respectively, on the NASA budget. In addition, adequate funds must eventually be provided to safely de-orbit the ISS-funds that were not allotted in the current or original program plans. 

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