Spaceflight Report Due Soon

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WASHINGTON — With an expert panel’s final report on options for U.S. human spaceflight expected to be released the week of Oct. 19, NASA and White House officials are said to be coalescing around the idea of sending astronauts on deep space missions to near-Earth objects and potentially the moons of Mars.

A draft version of the final report, requested in April by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, is circulating within the White House and NASA.

“The question now is funding,” said one administration official who has seen the draft report.

Led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, the White House-appointed panel concluded in a summary report delivered Sept. 8 that unless the United States is prepared to eventually add up to $3 billion a year to NASA’s budget, the agency has little hope of sending people beyond low Earth orbit for decades to come. NASA’s current exploration strategy calls for developing a space shuttle replacement system by 2015 and returning to the Moon by 2020.

The Augustine panel included the space shuttle replacement program — featuring the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket — among the five options detailed in the summary report. But other options would scrap elements of that program, and one of these, dubbed “flexible path” focuses not on returning to the Moon but rather on sending astronauts on asteroid rendezvous and Mars flyby missions.

“That is an attractive option within NASA,” the administration official said.

Another administration official asserted that options that include returning astronauts to the Moon “are not sellable to the public or to the president.”

Several of the options in the summary report would rely on outsourcing astronaut transport to the international space station to the private sector. This approach is favored by entrepreneurial space companies seeking a larger share of NASA’s business but opposed by those with a larger stake in Orion and especially Ares 1, which are part of a wider program dubbed Constellation.

“What’s really at stake in the short-term is Ares 1, and all of this push for commercial crew I would think is viewed as an alternative to a government-run program like Ares 1,” said John Logsdon, a space policy expert professor emeritus at the George Washington University here. “Long-term, it’s whether in fact there is going to be a meaningful space exploration program beyond the international space station.”

The Ares 1 is based on the space shuttle’s giant solid rocket motors built by Alliant Techsystems of Edina, Minn. Alliant Techsystems is the lead contractor on Ares 1.

Sources in the administration and on Capitol Hill say it remains to be seen when or how the White House responds to the report. But sources both within the administration and close to it say an increase along the lines suggested by the Augustine panel is being weighed. Such an increase would add almost $1 billion to the space exploration budget in 2011, ramping up to about $3 billion annually by 2014.

“I think the $3 billion figure has been widely misunderstood,” Logsdon said. “The actual proposal from the Augustine committee is a gradual increase to that level over four years through 2014, with only a little less than $1 billion proposed for next year.”

Congressional sources say lawmakers are anxiously awaiting the administration’s response to the Augustine panel’s final report, though some question whether Congress would support the flexible path exploration option.

Augustine was pressed during a September congressional hearing  to offer a compelling reason to abandon NASA’s current exploration program rather than fund it at a higher level, for example.

However, the Augustine panel indicated during public meetings held over the summer that in order to keep Constellation on track for a first flight of Ares 1-Orion by 2015 and a return to the Moon by 2020, NASA would need a total of $50 billion above current projections over the next decade.

“If you really want to do Constellation and keep it on the current schedule, or close to it, that’s what you’re looking at,” one administration official said.