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On Tuesday, after months of deliberation, the independent committee charged with reviewing the future of the U.S. human space program released a summary report of its findings, a document that will guide key decisions that lie ahead for the Obama administration.

According to the report, the current crisis facing NASA lies with its budget, and not with technical or programmatic issues. “The report clearly stated that the current program is not executable or sustainable with the budget that we have,” says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, in DC.

The report was issued by the Augustine panel, named after its chair Norman Augustine, a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. It recommends extending the Space Shuttle to 2011 to complete its remaining flights and extending the life of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020 to ensure that the U.S. and international partners get a return on their investment. Crucially, the report also suggests utilizing the commercial sector for unmanned and potentially manned missions to reduce government costs.

NASA’s current program, called Constellation, calls for sending humans to the ISS, the moon, Mars, and beyond. The plan includes developing a new launch system and a new crew vehicle, called Ares and Orion respectively, to replace the aging Space Shuttle.

The committee’s report puts forth five alternatives for human exploration of the solar system: continue with the current Constellation program; slow down and stretch out the Constellation program; focus on extending the life of the ISS to 2020, and develop a smaller version of the Ares V heavy-lift rocket for moon missions; extend the Space Shuttle to 2015 and the ISS to 2020 using either commercial services, a lighter version of the Ares V, or a shuttle-derived concept; and sending astronauts on deep-fly-bys of the moon, asteroids, and Mars.

The committee has stated that Mars is “unquestionably the most scientifically interesting destination in the inner solar system…but it is not an easy first place to visit with existing technologies and without substantial investment of resources.” Therefore, it recommends that the U.S. travel to the moon first or follow a “flexible path” option–in other words, embark on a series of deep-space rendezvous and fly-by missions before attempting to land astronauts on Mars.

James Oberg, a space expert and former NASA engineer, says that the report’s recommendation to develop commercial orbital access is central to some of the options. “There are some remarkable orbital vehicles that are being designed by the private sector,” he says.

“If we are to have a spaceflight program with the purpose of sending humans beyond low earth orbit, we need more money,” says John Logsdon, who served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and is the founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute. “If the budget is not increased, then we need to lower our goals, which [the committee] would call disappointing,” says Logsdon.

But Logsdon agrees with Oberg, adding that “the panel members looked at the commercial competitors and said yes, we think they can do the job. [The report] is an endorsement of commercial options.”

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Credits: NASA

Tagged: Business, NASA, moon, Mars, space travel, Augustine Panel, Ares, human space exploration

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