Augustine Committee Closing in on NASA’s Human Spaceflight Future

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WASHINGTON — A blue-ribbon panel tasked to recommend a range of options for NASA’s manned spaceflight program narrowed its list of possible recommendations during a public meeting here Aug. 5.

The options still under consideration run the gamut from sticking with NASA’s current Moon-focused Constellation program to skipping the Moon in favor of Mars.

All the options also assume that NASA will not complete its seven remaining space shuttle missions before the end of 2010, a retirement date that has been the basis of the U.S. space agency’s budget assumptions since setting its sights on the Moon five years ago.

The panel, led by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norman Augustine, is expected to present a range of options to senior NASA and White House officials in mid-August and produce a final report on its findings by the end of the month.

Augustine has said that at least two of the options it presents to the White House must fit within NASA’s current funding profile as proposed in the agency’s 2010 budget request, which provides roughly $80 billion through 2020 for human spaceflight. But the panel is expected to submit a number of options that would exceed that budget, which is some $28 billion less than what NASA was told it could expect when it was directed in 2004 to return to the Moon by 2020.

Among the seven options the Augustine committee detailed at the Aug. 5 meeting, three fall within the $80 billion budget profile, including:

  • A baseline proposal that would stretch out the Constellation program in order to fit it within the budget profile. This option assumes the shuttle is retired in 2011 and that the international space station is de-orbited in 2015.
  • A scenario where NASA keeps flying the space station through 2020 supporting it with European, Japanese and Russian rockets and eventually commercial vehicles or the Ares 1 rocket NASA is developing under Constellation. Missions beyond low Earth orbit would be postponed.
  • A scenario where NASA retires the shuttle in 2011, cancels Ares 1, accelerates development of an exploration-oriented Ares 5 heavy-lifter and relieson Russia to ferry astronauts to the space station until 2015 when the United States would withdraw from the program to focus on missions beyond low Earth orbit.

The four other options all assume that NASA keeps flying space station through 2020 and would require funding beyond the $80 million the administration of President Barack Obama has budgeted for human spaceflight through 2020.

NASA would rely on its international partners and U.S. commercial firms to support the space station under all four of the budget-busting options, the most ambitious of which entails bypassing the Moon and going directly to Mars.

The three remaining options include:

  • Flying the space shuttle through 2015 at one or two launches per year, canceling Ares 1 and Ares 5and developing a new more heavily shuttle-derived heavy-lift vehicle purely for missions beyond low Earth orbit.
  • Retiring the shuttle in 2011 and using a shuttle-derived heavy lifter or beefed-up U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles to stage crewed missions that could include orbiting the Moon, visiting asteroids or flying by Mars.
  • Retiring shuttle in 2011 and using a shuttle-derived heavy lifter or beefed-up Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles to mount missions to the lunar surface in preparation for eventual expeditions to Mars.

The panel is slated to meet again here Aug. 12 for its sixth and final public meeting, where the 10-member committee will hash out the final details before briefing senior NASA and White House officials late in the week.