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Obama Administration Mulls U.S. Human Spaceflight Future

NASA Chief: Budget Issues Delay Next Spaceship to 2015
Orion approaches the International Space Station. Photo
(Image: © Lockheed Martin Corp.)

U.S. President Barack Obama is not expected to significantlyboost the projected fundingprofile for NASA?s manned spaceflight program in the next few years,despite warnings from a blue-ribbon panel that the U.S. space agency needsbetween $3 billion and $4 billion more annually to send astronauts back to theMoon, according to sources with ties to the administration.

Instead, White House and NASA officials are scrubbing NASA?s2010 budget proposal, and the assumptions made by the blue-ribbon panel itunderpins, for potential cost savings over the next decade that could help fundsome means of sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit as soon as 2020. Onepossibility being weighed by the administration is abandoning the idea ofastronaut landings on the Moon in favor of missions that would take astronautson close flybys of heavenly bodies such as asteroids.

Under NASA?s current program of record, dubbedConstellation, the agency is developing hardware to return astronauts tothe Moon, including a space shuttle replacement system consisting of the Orioncrew capsule and its Ares 1 launcher. On Aug. 14, however, a White House-appointed panel?led by former Lockheed Martin chiefNorman Augustine?told NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and White Housescience adviser?John Holdren that NASA?s projected spending profile over thenext several years is nowhere near sufficient to carry out that plan.

Part of the problem is that NASA has been operating underthe assumption that U.S. support to the international space station ? whichcosts some $3 billion annually ? would end in 2016, even though that support iswidely expected to be extended at least through 2020. On top of that, thepresident?s five-year projected funding profile for Constellation, unveiledwith the White House?s 2010 budget request, is roughly $3.4 billion?less than what was envisioned by the previous administration.

The challenges confronting Constellation were brought into stark relief by the Augustine panel?s findings, which indicate thatOrion and Ares 1, currently slated to debut in 2015, are unlikely to be readyto ferry astronauts to the station before 2017. At best, the panel concluded,NASA needs between $3 billion?to $4 billion more annually to send humans to theMoon by the mid-2020s, according to briefing charts available on the panel?sWeb site.

?We?ve been acting as if we were doing something thatthere?s no money to do,? said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at theSmithsonian?s National Air and Space Museum here. ?And I think with thevisibility in our community, and the visibility of Obama?s conclusions, theissue can no longer be avoided. Let?s hope we don?t make choices withoutunderstanding their consequences.?

With the Obama administration just beginning to digest theAugustine panel?s preliminary findings, it is too early to know what direction NASA will be given, though some likely options are beginning to emerge. Among them is aplan to spend some?$2.5 billion over the next five years to develop?a commercial crew transportation system to low Earth orbit.

While this option in theory would free NASA to pursue morechallenging missions in deep space, sources familiar with the administration?sthinking say the agency should not?expect any more than an extra $1 billion formanned exploration beginning in 2012 or 2013; the $2.5 billion proposed for commercial crew transportation would be tapped from existing manned explorationbudgets over the next five years, these sources said.

NASA?s budget profile for human spaceflight, about $80 billion through 2020, is some $28 billion less than what the agency was toldit could expect four years ago when it selected the Constellation architecture,which also includes a heavy-lift rocket dubbed Ares 5 and the Altair lunarlander.

But despite these funding reductions, sources say there are prospects for finding?cost savings within NASA?s existing program. For example, shifting NASA?s acquisition strategy for the Orion Crew ExplorationVehicle from a traditional government?procurement to one that is commercial innature could yield significant savings in the near-term, according to sourcesfamiliar with NASA spending processes.

?Going from a cost-plus contract to a firm-fixed price wouldmean that there?s less government people from [NASA?s Johnson Space Center inHouston] involved in the design process,? said one source familiar with NASAspending. ?Forty percent cost savings on Constellation is probably notunreasonable.?

Another option under review would hand space station operations over to a private contractor, potentially saving $500million to $1 billion per year, industry sources said.

Additional funding for human spaceflight operations could come from pots of money historically vulnerable to plunder, including technology development.?While the Augustine panel assumed NASA would ramp up spending inthis area from $500 million in 2011 to $1.5 billion by 2015, sources close tothe administration say that investment could be held at around $800 million a year.

However, some question the wisdom of the cost-saving optionsbeing discussed, particularly relying on private companies to transport humansin low Earth orbit.

?I think the budget constrictions created by the fiscal 2010budget are forcing the Augustine Committee toward approaches with a great dealof new risk,? said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University here. ?A government system capable of going to theMoon, like Ares 1/Orion, is also capable of going to [low Earth orbit] and that?s the ?public option,? if you will, that allows NASA to placeresponsible bets on commercial suppliers,? said Pace, who held senior posts atNASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under formerPresident George W. Bush.

While the future of Orion and Ares 1 remain uncertain,sources close to the administration say the latter is likely to meet the budgetax in favor of an alternative launcher. Likewise, Orion could be vulnerable if a safe, reliable commercial option for crew transport to the space station could bequickly developed,?though observers suggested the Lockheed Martin-designed crewcapsule could serve as a government backup to any future commercial capability.

Lift options being weighed include a shuttle-derived vehicle? other than Ares 1 and Ares 5, both of which are shuttle-derived ? or acommercially developed rocket fueled by kerosene. United Launch Alliance?sAtlas 5 has a kerosene-fueled main engine that is built in Russia;?one of the company?s industrial partners, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, has takenpreliminary steps toward manufacturing that hardware domestically. ?

The White House is expected to submit an amended 2010 budgetrequest for NASA?s exploration program by mid-September, according to sourceswith ties to the administration. Political watchers note that activity in the Senate ? which has yet to pass a NASA appropriations bill this year ?likely will be dominated by health care reform in the coming weeks.

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