White House-backed group will determine future of manned space flight

Ares V

Even as NASA workers are being laid off in anticipation of the Space shuttle program ending, the White House science office said today it would set up a panel of experts to conduct a wide-ranging review the future of human space flight.

The "Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans"  will be led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin and will examine ongoing and planned NASA development activities, as well as potential alternatives, and offer options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program in the years following Space Shuttle retirement, the White House stated in a release. 

The panel, whose other member are unnamed at the moment, will work closely with NASA and will seek input from Congress, the White House, the public, industry, and international partners as it develops options.  The panel should reach some conclusions by August 2009.

The panel will assess a number of architecture options, taking into account such objectives as:

1. Expediting a new US capability to support use of the International Space Station;

2. Supporting missions to the Moon and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit;

3. Stimulating commercial space flight capabilities;

4. Review what's possible within the current budget profile for NASA exploration activities.

5. Crew and mission safety

6. Life-cycle costs, development time,

7. National space industrial base impacts,

8. Potential to spur innovation and encourage competition,

9. Implications of transitioning from current human space flight systems.

The review will consider the appropriate amounts of R&D and complementary robotic activity necessary to support various human space flight activities, as well as the capabilities that are likely to be enabled by each of the potential architectures under consideration. It will also explore options for extending International Space Station operations beyond 2016.

"President Obama recognizes the important role that NASA's human space flight programs play in advancing scientific discovery, technological innovation, economic strength and international leadership," said John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. "The President's goal is to ensure that these programs remain on a strong and stable footing well into the 21st Century, and this review will be crucial to meeting that goal."

Holdren did note that the current development of NASA's next manned space mission, Constellation, would continue forward as this review process is underway.

A Government Accountability Office report last year said there were considerable unknowns as to whether NASA's Constellation Program, which includes the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, and the Ares V Cargo Launch Vehicle, can be designed and built within schedule goals and what these efforts will ultimately cost.

This is primarily because NASA is still in the process of defining many performance requirements. Such uncertainties could affect the mass, loads, and weight requirements for the vehicles. NASA is aiming to complete this process in 2008, but it will be challenged to do so given the level of knowledge that still needs to be attained, the GAO said.

Over $7 billion in contracts has already been awarded to the Constellation Program-and nearly $230 billion is estimated to be ultimately spent over the next two decades, the GAO said. Moreover, NASA is under pressure to develop the vehicles quickly, as the Space Shuttle's retirement in 2010 means that there could be at least a 5-year gap in our nation's ability to send humans to space.

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