WASHINGTON — A blue ribbon panel tasked with reviewing NASA’s manned spaceflight program delivered to the White House Sept. 8 a 12-page summary of its findings, including two options based closely on the space agency’s current plan for replacing its aging space shuttle fleet.
The panel, led by retired Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine, will not release its full report until later in September. But of the five basic options outlined in the summary, two would continue with the Constellation program, under which NASA is developing the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 launcher to replace the space shuttle along with an Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket and other systems that would enable the agency to return astronauts to the Moon.
Four of the options would delay the retirement of the space shuttle from the end of 2010 as currently planned to some time in 2011; the other would extend that program out to 2015.
The first, or baseline, option would continue Constellation under U.S. President Barack Obama’s current five-year budget profile for NASA. Under this scheme U.S. involvement in the international space station would end in 2016. However, this option includes funds for shuttle operations into 2011; it also funds the scuttling of the space station. Orion and Ares 1 would not be available before 2016. Ares 5, meanwhile, would not become available until the late 2020s, and the Altair lander and other lunar-surface exploration systems would not be ready until “well into the 2030s, if ever,” the report summary states.
A second option that also fits within the current budget profile would extend the space station to 2020 and start work on a smaller version of the cargo-carrying Ares 5. This option also would fund a technology development program and pursue a commercial crew capability to deliver astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. It does not deliver a heavy-lift launch capability until the late 2020s, and does not include funds to develop the other systems needed to land on the Moon.
The remaining three options assume NASA’s funding profile for space exploration programs increases steadily over the next five years to $3 billion higher than currently envisioned in 2014. After that, it would be allowed to grow at the rate of inflation, estimated at 2.4 percent.
The first of these higher-budget options — the third option overall — would stick with the current plan for Constellation but require NASA to budget for de-orbiting the space station in 2016 and shuttle operations into 2011. It would continue developing Orion, Ares 1 and Ares 5, with a maiden voyage for the crew capsule and its launcher by 2017 and lunar exploration by the mid-2020s.
A fourth option, dubbed “Moon First,” would extend the space station to 2020, fund technology advancement and rely on commercial vehicles to carry crews to low Earth orbit. Two variants of this option are included, the first of which would retire the shuttle in 2011 and develop a lighter version of the Ares 5. A second variant would extend the space shuttle to 2015 to eliminate the gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability expected when the space shuttle fleet retires next year as currently planned. It also develops a heavy-lift rocket closely based on the shuttle for missions to the Moon. Both variants of the fourth option deliver astronauts to the Moon by the mid-2020s.
A fifth and final option, dubbed “Flexible Path,” would begin exploration beyond low Earth orbit in the early 2020s, with lunar fly-bys, visits to Lagrange points and near Earth objects, and Mars fly-bys. These events would occur at a rate of about one per year, according to the document, with a possible rendezvous with the moons of Mars or a human lunar return by the mid to late 2020s.
Flexible Path includes three variants:
- Develop a lighter version of the Ares 5, which the summary describes as “the most capable of the heavy-lift vehicles in this option.”
- Develop a heavy-lift rocket based on the U.S. Air Force’s existing Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. This option would dramatically reduce NASA’s role in launch vehicle development and operations. “It has an advantage of potentially lower operational costs, but requires significant restructuring of NASA,” the report summary states.
- Develop a directly shuttle-derived, heavy-lift vehicle that takes maximum advantage of existing infrastructure, facilities and production capabilities.
Of the five main options detailed in the summary, only the first and third do not feature some level of outsourcing of astronaut transport to and from low Earth orbit to entrepreneurial space firms.
“Commercial services to deliver crew to low-Earth orbit are within reach,” the document states. “While this presents some risk, it could provide an earlier capability at lower initial and lifecycle costs than government could achieve. A new competition with adequate incentives should be open to all U.S. aerospace companies.”
The document also states that giving responsibility for space transportation to the private sector would allow NASA to focus on more challenging roles, “including human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, based on the continued development of the current or modified Orion spacecraft.”
Elon Musk, president of Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, said in a Sept. 8 teleconference with reporters that his company could have a commercial crew transportation capability ready within three years of a contract award. He said the cost of transporting astronauts to low Earth orbit would run about $20 million per seat, assuming four flights a year on the planned seven-passenger Dragon.
“That’s about 40 percent of the Russian cost,” he said, referring to the estimated $50 million cost-per-seat to fly U.S. astronauts on the Russian Soyuz capsule. Under NASA’s current plan, Soyuz will be the only means of transporting crews to and from the space station following the shuttle’s retirement until Orion begins operations.