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A 10-person committee charged with reviewing the future of U.S. human spaceflight will hold its first public meeting today, beginning a process that must cover a lot of territory in very little time.

The independent panel of experts will examine NASA’s Constellation Program, which plans to send humans to the International Space Station (ISS), the moon, and possibly Mars, and will consider alternatives to options already on the table.

The review comes at a time when the Space Shuttle is facing retirement, and a new launch system, called Ares, isn’t scheduled to begin operations until at least 2015, leaving a gap in U.S. launch capability of five years or more. NASA’s Constellation Program has attracted criticism for the Ares design, as well as for slipping timelines and budget overruns.

In a speech at MIT last week, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, outlined three key questions that the panel will examine: whether it’s possible to reduce the gap in launch capability, what the options are for extending the use of the ISS beyond 2016, and what a timetable for missions beyond low-earth orbit (LEO) might look like, given budget constraints.

It is notably an “advice only” committee: it will analyze options and present recommendations but will not determine the future of human spaceflight. “We’re not being asked to pick the direction,” says Edward Crawley, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT and one of the 10 panelists. “That’s why the president gets paid the big bucks. We just give him the list of options.”

The committee will report its findings to the Obama White House, Holdren, and a new NASA administrator: retired astronaut Charles Bolden is currently awaiting confirmation hearings. The panel’s report is expected by the end of August in order to affect an administration decision on the way forward, before the 2010 financial-year budget is set.

Dubbed the “Augustine committee” for its chair, Norman Augustine, a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin and a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on science and technology for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the panel includes former astronauts, industry executives, engineers, and experts on the civil space program. A NASA review team will provide technical support to the committee.

John Logsdon, who served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and was founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, says that the panel was well chosen, with “people that can do in-depth technical analysis, that have years of experience and reputations for integrity.”

But a key question that many analysts and proponents of human spaceflight are asking is what the committee members will actually focus on.

The technical background of the panel, says Logsdon, equips the members to examine the current Constellation Program. Criticism of the Constellation “architecture,” particularly the design of the Ares launch system, which requires separate rockets for crew and cargo, cropped up during President Obama’s NASA transition-team investigations. The question was whether this architecture or those based more heavily on existing technologies could be built faster and more cheaply. According to Logsdon, that criticism prompted the transition team to recommend that before the president “embraces” the current architecture, he get an independent judgment on whether it’s the right one. “And that’s what this panel is set up to do,” Logsdon says.

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Credits: NASA, Brittany Sauser
Video by NASA

Tagged: Business, NASA, space, moon, Augustine Panel, Ares, Constellation Program, human spaceflight

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