— U.S. President Barack Obama is not expected to significantly boost the projected funding profile for NASA’s manned spaceflight program in the next few years, despite warnings from a blue-ribbon panel that the
space agency needs between $3 billion and $4 billion more annually to send astronauts back to the Moon, according to sources with ties to the administration.

Instead, White House and NASA officials are scrubbing NASA’s 2010 budget proposal, and the assumptions made by the blue-ribbon panel it underpins, for potential cost savings over the next decade that could help fund some means of sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit as soon as 2020. One possibility being weighed by the administration is abandoning the idea of astronaut landings on the Moon in favor of missions that would take astronauts on close flybys of heavenly bodies such as asteroids.

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

Part of the problem is that NASA has been operating under the assumption that U.S. support to the international space station – which costs some $3 billion annually – would end in 2016, even though that support is widely expected to be extended at least through 2020. On top of that, the president’s five-year projected funding profile for Constellation, unveiled with 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 that Orion and Ares 1, currently slated to debut in 2015, are unlikely to be ready to 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 the Moon by the mid-2020s, according to briefing charts available on the panel’s Web site.

“We’ve been acting as if we were doing something that there’s no money to do,” said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the Smithsonian’s National Air and
here. “And I think with the visibility in our community, and the visibility of Obama’s conclusions, the issue can no longer be avoided. Let’s hope we don’t make choices without understanding their consequences.”

With the Obama administration just beginning to digest the Augustine 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 a plan 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 more challenging missions in deep space, sources familiar with the administration’s thinking say the agency should not expect any more than an extra $1 billion for manned exploration beginning in 2012 or 2013; the $2.5 billion proposed for commercial crew transportation would be tapped from existing manned exploration budgets 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 told it could expect four years ago when it selected the Constellation architecture, which also includes a heavy-lift rocket dubbed Ares 5 and the Altair lunar lander.

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 Exploration Vehicle from a traditional government procurement to one that is commercial in nature could yield significant savings in the near-term, according to sources familiar with NASA spending processes.

“Going from a cost-plus contract to a firm-fixed price would mean that there’s less government people from [NASA’s
] involved in the design process,” said one source familiar with NASA spending. “Forty percent cost savings on Constellation is probably not unreasonable.”

Another option under review would hand space station operations over to a private contractor, potentially saving $500 million 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 in this area from $500 million in 2011 to $1.5 billion by 2015, sources close to the administration say that investment could be held at around $800 million a year.

However, some question the wisdom of the cost-saving options being discussed, particularly relying on private companies to transport humans in low Earth orbit.

“I think the budget constrictions created by the fiscal 2010 budget are forcing the Augustine Committee toward approaches with a great deal of new risk,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the
here. “A government system capable of going to the Moon, 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 place responsible bets on commercial suppliers,” said Pace, who held senior posts at NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President 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 budget ax 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 be quickly developed, though observers suggested the Lockheed Martin-designed crew capsule 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 a commercially developed rocket fueled by kerosene. United Launch Alliance‘s Atlas 5 has a kerosene-fueled main engine that is built in
; one of the company’s industrial partners, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, has taken preliminary steps toward manufacturing that hardware domestically.

The White House is expected to submit an amended 2010 budget request for NASA’s exploration program by mid-September, according to sources with 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.