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Future rocket: NASA’s test rocket, Ares I-X, being stacked at Kennedy Space Center in preparation for launch on October 31.

NASA’s current budget for fiscal 2010 is approximately $18.6 billion, an increase from fiscal 2009, but the human space exploration program has received $3.4 billion less than was suggested by the previous administration. In addition, the budget’s profile through 2020 is around $80 billion–$28 billion less than what the agency was told it could expect four years ago, when it devised the Constellation program.

“If you add in the $3 billion for the years 2011 to 2013 and put back in the projected inflation of 2.4 percent instead of 1.36 percent, then all the options that the Augustine Committee came up with are affordable,” says Pace, who was assistant director for space and aeronautics in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President George W. Bush.

Pace says he does not see any alternatives that are more attractive than the current Constellation program. “If the technical program is not broken, then do you change the policy, or do you change the budget? My opinion is you change the budget.” He adds that the current policy has been endorsed by two different congresses, under the NASA authorization bill in fiscal 2005 and 2008, and “is as solid of a policy as you are going to get.”

However, the Constellation program, which calls for developing the Ares I rocket for flights to the ISS by 2016 and building the Orion crew capsule to return humans to the moon by 2020, has attracted criticism. Logsdon says it’s clear that the committee does not think the Ares I is a good idea and that the most feasible date for moon landings would be mid-2020s.

Pace argues that the criticism of Ares I obscures deeper questions. “Are we willing to be dependent on the Russians for a longer period of time? Or are we willing to bet that commercial capabilities will arrive on time?”

Among the other options put forth by the panel, Oberg says that the flexible option is particularly interesting. “This could be the breakthrough path to develop new technologies for human exploration, as opposed to the favored ‘Apollo on steroids’ approach,” he says.

The panel also mentioned using a shuttle-derived launch vehicle, although most experts agree that this option would, in the end, be more expensive and leave the U.S. without an adequate heavy launch vehicle. It would only be viable if the Obama administration decided not to increase NASA’s budget.

The committee concludes that “no plan compatible with the FY 2010 budget profile permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way.” The question the Obama administration will have to answer, says Pace, is “what sort of space program do we want to have, and what are we willing to pay?”

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Credits: NASA

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

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