White House Panel Backs Commercial Alternatives to NASA's New Rocket
The Ares I-X rocket sits at its Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in preparation for its test launch Oct. 27.
Credit: Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE.com.

This story was updated at 5:03 p.m.

The independent blue-ribbon panel that reviewed NASA's plans to replace its space shuttles said Thursday that the agency should consider using commercial vehicles to help achieve its goal, and perhaps nix the new Ares I rocket slated to fly future astronauts.

In a 155-page report entitled "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation," the 10-member committee expanded on the five potential options it drew up over the summer for NASA's human spaceflight future, including more detail and data to be reviewed by President Barack Obama.

Committee chairman Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, said NASA's plan to replace the space shuttle fleet with capsule-based Orion spacecraft and Ares I rockets ? a prototype of which is poised to launch Oct. 27 ? suffers from a lack of funding so severe the agency may now have the wrong vehicle for its mission.

NASA's stated vision for human spaceflight is to retire its space shuttle fleet around 2010 and replace them with Orion spacecraft, to be launched on Ares I rockets by around 2015 at the earliest. A larger Ares V rocket would launch heavy cargo and lunar landers into orbit to support new manned missions to the moon by 2020.

But after a series of summer meetings, Augustine's committee found that NASA needs a budget boost that would inject ultimately up to $3 billion by 2014 to fund NASA's plan. The stated five-year gap between the 2010 shuttle retirement and first manned Orion flights is likely to stretch to at least seven-years, with any effort to reach the moon or elsewhere likely to come in the early or mid-2020s, the committee found.

Some of the five basic options put forth by the committee include internal variants that offer a wider selection for President Obama to choose from. They include potential trips to nearby asteroids, trips that fly to ? but don?t land on ? the moon, and a mission to explore moons of Mars. Several options do away with the Ares I rocket altogether.

At the heart of the NASA's challenges has been funding, the committee said. In 2005, when NASA tapped the Ares I rocket to launch Orion, it did so under budget projections that ultimately did not materialize.

"It was right at the time, but times have changed," said committee member Edward Crawley, an MIT professor.

Crawley said there are no fundamental technical concerns facing the Ares I rocket that NASA could not surmount given time and money. But the agency is slim on both commodities. It is spelled out starkly in the committee's final report.

"With time and sufficient funds, NASA could develop, build and fly the Ares I successfully," the report states. "The question is, should it?"

Commercial spacecraft, spurred on by up to $5 billion in incentives from NASA, could provide the access to low-Earth orbit needed in the short-term after the shuttle fleet retires, and perhaps do so within the seven-year gap, the committee's report said.

"As we move from the complex, reusable shuttle back to a simpler, smaller capsule, it is appropriate to consider turning these transport services over to the commercial sector," the committee wrote in its report.

NASA already plans to use commercial spacecraft to supply cargo to the International Space Station, but a push to use similar services to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting lab should have new incentives and perhaps a new competition, the committee wrote.

The final report also included more detail on the drawbacks of extending the space shuttle program beyond 2011, as well as extending the International Space Station's life through 2020. NASA will likely not be able to complete its sixth remaining mission to finish assembly of the space station until 2011, the committee said.

Extending the shuttle program beyond that, and lengthening the service life of the space station ?  which is currently slated to be deorbited in 2016 ? would require funding that could be used to build and fly new Ares and Orion spacecraft to orbit, the moon or elsewhere, the committee said.

Despite the challenges facing NASA and the future of the U.S. space program, the committee said the Obama administration has a chance to revitalize the American space program.

"The opportunity now exists to provide for the future human spaceflight program worthy of a great nation," the report stated.

  • Video - Ares I-X Rocket Rolls to Launch Pad, Test Flight Plan
  • Video - Back to the Moon with NASA's Constellation 
  • Video Show - NASA's Vision for Humans in Space