CAPE CANAVERAL -- The United States cannot afford to return American astronauts to the moon under the NASA budget currently proposed by the Obama administration, a presidential panel said Wednesday.
Nonetheless, the panel will offer at least two options for future human spaceflight programs that could be done within the $81.5 billion budgeted for NASA through 2020.
And people on the Space Coast will be among the first to hear about "destination-based" scenarios for missions beyond Earth orbit when the committee is briefed on the topic for the first time at a public hearing today in Cocoa Beach.
On Wednesday, NASA officials steadfastly defended plans to develop the Ares I and Ares V rockets for moon missions at a hearing near NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"The Ares I and V development is the fastest and most prudent path to closing the human spaceflight gap while enabling exploration of the moon and beyond," NASA Ares Program Manager Steve Cook said.
Cook and other NASA officials noted that Columbia accident investigators recommended that NASA replace its shuttle fleet with spacecraft designed to give overriding priority to crew safety.
The Ares I, which is being developed to carry moon-bound astronauts into low Earth orbit, would be 10 times safer than the shuttle, Cook told the panel.
It also would be a factor of two, and in some cases, a factor of three safer than the alternative launch systems that the committee is examining, Joseph Fragola, an independent risk analyst, told the panel.
The panel was established by the White House to review NASA's plans for its human spaceflight program.
The group is looking at a variety of alternatives to the Ares rockets, including the potential use of United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy or Atlas V rockets.
A subcommittee will report on launch vehicle options at a hearing in Washington, D.C., next month. The panel will report to the White House by the end of August.
The Ares I project has wrestled with technical issues, including thrust oscillation, in which the rocket is expected to vibrate significantly during flight. NASA plans to put shock absorbers between stages to dampen vibrations.
Bohdan Bejmuk, a former Boeing manager who is heading the subcommittee, told NASA officials that all Ares I technical issues "are solvable."
"Your budget problems are bigger than your technical problems," he said.
The Obama administration's 2010 budget for NASA represents a $26.5 billion cut from previous projections.
Gary Pullium, a vice president with The Aerospace Corp., said NASA won't be able to return to the moon by 2020 under those constraints. "Given our assessment of the 2010 budget and what we believe about cost and schedule, we just simply said there is not enough money in this budget in the near term to do the human lunar return," he said.
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