NASA's future manned spaceflight forecast: Bleak

NASA options include robots and deeper space exploration

STS 128 space walk
Things don't look good for NASA when the opening sentence of a report outlining its future begins: "The US human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory."

'[NASA] is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. 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," the report continued.

That was just the beginning of the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee summary report which was handed to the White House today after months of expert review and testimony.  A bleak report was expected by many observers but ultimately how its results are interpreted will determine the future of any manned space flights. Keep in mind too that NASA has spent almost $8 billion of a planned $40 billion to develop systems for a lunar return.

President Obama initiated the "Review of United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee"  which was led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin to 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 report offered a number of interesting findings and space exploration options, chief among them was the fact that NASA should basically get out of the low orbit business and focus on deeper space research.

Another option, called Flexible Path by the committee, would have humans and robots visiting sites never visited before while traveling greater and greater distances from Earth. Successive missions would visit: lunar orbit; the Lagrange points (special points in space that are important sites for scientific observations and the future space transportation infrastructure); near-Earth objects (asteroids that cross the Earth's path); and orbit around Mars. Most interestingly, humans could rendezvous with a moon of Mars, then coordinate with or control robots on the Martian surface, the report stated.

The Flexible Path represents a different type of exploration strategy, the committee stated.  "We would learn how to live and work in space, to visit small bodies, and to work with robotic probes on the planetary surface. It would provide the public and other stakeholders with a series of interesting firsts to keep them engaged and supportive. Most important, because the path is flexible, it would allow many different options as exploration progresses, including a return to the Moon's surface, or a continuation to the surface of Mars," the committee stated.

Additional findings included:    

  • NASA's budget should match its mission and goals. NASA should be given the ability to shape its organization and infrastructure accordingly, while maintaining facilities deemed to be of national importance.
  • International partnerships: The U.S. 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 resources overall could become available.
  • Short-term Space Shuttle planning: Under current conditions, the gap in U.S. 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 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 ISS life. Not to extend its operation would significantly impair U.S. 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, and it also will be useful to the national security space and scientific communities.
  • Commercial crew launch 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 lifecycle costs than government could achieve. A new competition with adequate incentives should be open to all U.S. aerospace companies. This would allow NASA to 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 U.S. commercial space industry and other U.S. government users.
  • Pathways to Mars: Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination. Both visiting the Moon First and following the Flexible Path are viable exploration strategies. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive; before traveling to Mars, we might be well served to both extend our presence in free space and gain experience working on the lunar surface.
  • Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 budget guideline. 
  • Meaningful human exploration is possible under a less constrained budget, ramping to  approximately $3 billion per year above the FY 2010 guidance in total resources.
  • Funding at the increased level would allow either an exploration program to explore Moon First or one that follows a Flexible Path of exploration. Either could produce results in a reasonable timeframe.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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