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Augustine panel submits final report on spaceflight options
Posted: October 22, 2009

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Amid work to ready NASA's Ares I-X rocket for a long-awaited test flight next week, a presidential panel charged with reviewing the nation's manned space program submitted its completed report Thursday, concluding NASA's planned shuttle replacement will cost too much and take too long to build to be a viable option.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Even so, panel members said they looked forward to the $445 million test flight Tuesday and the data it will generate to help validate computer models and processes that will be useful in any future rocket design efforts.

"We do think it's appropriate to fly the Ares I-X," said Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin and chairman of the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. "We think there are important things to be learned that will help the program."

The panel's completed report contained no major surprises - an executive summary was released in September that included the same five basic options for future manned space activity - but the coincidental timing of the report and next week's test flight highlighted the uncertain future of NASA's plans to replace the space shuttle and return to the moon.

"The premier conclusion of the committee is the human spaceflight program the United States is currently pursuing is one that's on an unsustainable trajectory," said Augustine. "We say that because of a mismatch between the scope of the program and the funds to support the program. That's of great concern to us because human spaceflight, where safety accounts for everything, is a very unforgiving sort of pursuit."

In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the Bush administration ordered NASA to finish the International Space Station and retire the shuttle by the end of 2010 and to develop new rockets and spacecraft to return astronauts to the moon by the early 2020s.

The plan NASA developed - the Constellation program - calls for a new rocket known as the Ares I, and a Apollo-like crew capsule called Orion, to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. A large, unmanned heavy lift rocket known as the Ares V then would be built to launch Orion capsules and lunar landers to the moon.

President Obama expressed general support for the Constellation program during the presidential campaign, but earlier this year he ordered an independent review of NASA's manned space program in the context of the current budget environment. At the same time, the Office of Management and Budget cut some $3 billion from NASA's projected "out-years" budget, money earmarked for development of the Ares V.

Against that uncertain backdrop, NASA pressed ahead with development of the Orion capsule and the Ares I booster envisioned as a replacement for the space shuttle. The new rocket features an extended shuttle solid-fuel booster, a hydrogen-fueled upper stage and an escape rocket that could pull the crew capsule to safety in an emergency.

NASA plans to launch a test version of the rocket Tuesday on an unmanned sub-orbital flight to verify computer models being developed to help design the Ares I. For the test flight, a standard four-segment shuttle booster is being used, along with a dummy upper stage and an Orion capsule simulator that duplicate the mass and shape of the Ares I rocket.

"We've reviewed the Ares I and Orion elements of that program, which are the two parts that are principally underway," Augustine said Thursday. "We found those programs to be reasonably well managed, we found them to have technical problems of a nature that's probably not uncommon for complex undertakings of this type.

"It's our belief that given ample time and funds, the engineers at NASA and their contractors are certainly capable of solving those problems. So we think the program within itself has a very good likelihood of succeeding. The issue that comes up under Ares I is whether the program is useful when it has succeeded because of a mismatch of the time schedules and the costs with what will be needed for it to do."

While that observation suggests Augustine and the panel do not support continued development of Ares I, panel member Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut, said "it's important to emphasize that we were presenting options, not recommendations."

"Despite what's been going on in the blogosphere, the panel didn't come up and saying (NASA) should cancel Ares I, which a lot of people think we actually did," he said in a telephone interview. "It's really up to the decision makers as to which path to go down. So Ares I is not dead by a long shot."

NASA believes the Ares I could be ready to fly by 2015. The Augustine panel concluded it would take until at least 2017 to complete the work, coming on line too late to provide more than token support to the International Space Station. In the meantime, NASA will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz rockets, at $50 million per ticket, to get U.S. astronauts to and from the lab complex.

The Augustine report also concluded that NASA will be unable to extend human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit without additional funding, suggesting an additional $3 billion per year, plus a hedge against inflation, to fund a realistic space exploration program.

The panel did not make recommendations, but members seem to favor a commercially developed launch system to get astronauts to low-Earth orbit and a government-developed heavy lift rocket to extend human exploration to the moon and beyond.

The so-called "flexible path" option presented by the Augustine panel would allow NASA to launch orbital moon missions and even flights around Mars or to its moons by the early to mid 2020s, while long-term development of landers and associated hardware is developed in parallel.

"The current plan focuses on going to the moon (with) the longer term goal of going to Mars," Augustine said. "There are a lot of things one could do along the way that are very interesting, that let you build up gradually to the immense undertaking of the Mars program.

"The sort of thing we're thinking of, one could fly circumlunar missions, you could circumnavigate Mars, you could land on an asteroid, a near-Earth object, you could land on Phobos or Deimos, the martian moons, and do some very exciting science from there. It seems to us that is a more sensible program than to wait 15 years or so for the first major event."

Panel member Edward Crawley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said the panel did not oppose the Constellation architecture per se or believe NASA faced any insurmountable technical hurdles. But given the current budget environment, he said, Ares I was not the most cost-effective option for transportation to low-Earth orbit.

"We do not think there are any technical problems with the Ares I that NASA cannot overcome with time and budget," he said. "So we actually expect the Ares I-X flight to go off and be successful. That's really not the central question. The central question is not whether can NASA build the Ares I? Really, the question is, should NASA build the Ares I?"

At the time the Constellation architecture was initially developed, "it was a sound decision, it was a clever architecture combining the Ares I and the Ares V," Crawley said. "And under the cost assumptions and the correct perspective that crew safety in from launch to orbit was the premier criteria for design, it was a wise choice at the time.

"But times have changed," he said. "The budgetary environment has become much more tight and the understanding of the costs and schedule to develop the Ares I has matured. Under the best of circumstances, the Ares I and Orion would be available in 2017 ... the last few years of the ISS. It's a very capable vehicle, arguably too capable for use as a crew taxi to low-Earth orbit. Really, the question as framed by the committee is are there alternatives that would deliver a capability earlier and at lower cost but with the same criteria for safety?"

The Augustine committee concluded "the most likely alternative that would work would be to form a partnership between NASA and the commercial industry."

"This has the potential for producing a safe vehicle," he said. "It has the potential for significant cost savings."

A White House spokesman thanked the panel for its report, saying "the president has on numerous occasions confirmed his commitment to human space exploration, and the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving our boldest aspirations in space."

"Against a backdrop of serious challenges with the existing program, the Augustine committee has offered several key findings and a range of options for how the nation might improve its future human space flight activities," he said. "We will be reviewing the committee's analysis, and then ultimately the president will be making the final decisions."

John Logsdon, a space analyst at George Washington University, said "my crystal ball is that Obama will, at least for fiscal 2011, add a billion or so to the NASA budget - the key will be the out-year budget - and endorse something like the flexible path."

"There's no doubt that we're going to extend station (operations beyond 2015)," he said, "and I think there is little doubt that we're going to depend on what people are calling commercial providers to be the transport system for crew to station as soon as they're ready."