More from the panel discussing the mainstream space program:
President Barack Obama’s human space flight committee is covering a lot of ground fast in a quest to deliver a report to the White House by the end of August.
In about 20 hours of meetings last week, they addressed the future of the space shuttles and International Space Station. They talked about whether to scrap the Ares rockets. They debated where to send astronauts.
The committee pored over reams of data. Members asked prickly questions. They made pronouncements that sounded like recommendations, though Chairman Norm Augustine said the report will not make recommendations. It will give the president several options.
You might be wondering, “Where are these folks headed?”
Clues abound. Here are five things I expect will show up in their final report.
1. The space station will not be tossed on the cosmic garbage pile. The committee will say it’s unwise to give up the station just a couple years after spending up to $100 billion to build it.
Expect the committee to give the White House at least one option funding American operations on the ISS through 2020.
Members acknowledge the consequences. Doing so means any plans to fly humans deeper into space must be pushed way back because the station will eat up billions needed to develop a new space transportation system.
You can’t do both without more money and it doesn’t appear space will get the kind of multi-billion dollar bailout given to the financial, real estate and auto industries.
2. The committee will give Obama an option to cut the planned human space flight gap and that plan will somehow involve the shuttle. Sally Ride went over three options for extending the shuttle and station programs. The panel says flying the shuttles past 2010 is the only way to cut a long gap in U.S. human space launches.
Ride flew twice on the shuttle and investigated both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. She knows the inherent risks of the shuttle and the intensification of danger as the system ages. But she also knows the shuttle can be flown safely (both disasters were caused by the same thing: human error). More than anything, however, the shuttle is uniquely able to service this space station and increase its usefulness.
Like the station, pouring money into the shuttle — even a few flights — steals from exploration. But, panelists stress the president’s budget is too small to fund exploration anyway. They are destined to offer the White House an option to extend the shuttle, while setting aside money for long-term investments in deep-space exploration technology.
Last year in Titusville, Obama promised to shorten the gap. He promised to make sure “all of those who work in the space industry in Florida do not lose their jobs when the space shuttle is retired.” The promise was not ambiguous. The panel will give the president one option that allows him to keep his promise.
3. Yet another bid to replace the space shuttles appears doomed to cancellation.
This happens every time America tries to replace the shuttles. Past tries fell short technically, or blew the budget, or both. Ares is technically feasible. It’s closer to budget than earlier candidates. Still, it’s on political life support.
Panel members are frustrated because changing course means tossing aside time and money invested so far. They say there must be an overwhelming reason to kill it. Then, they keep citing a compelling reason: NASA’s budget can’t field the system on time. Not even close. Orion might not fly with people until 2017 at best. A moon landing? 2028.
Moreover, those dates are only possible if the shuttle is retired in 2010 and the station is forsaken in 2016. Sticking with Ares means a longer — and growing — space flight gap.
The panel is leaning toward a combination of launch systems, maybe including Ares V. The Ares I crew launcher is unlikely to be listed as an option that meets Obama’s goals.
4. The moon may not be the target. Panelists are downplaying gains from landing humans on the moon again, unless as a quick “touch and go” test flight only for checking out landers and habitats for a Mars mission.
Some said the moon is not inspiring the public. More likely to be given as options: go straight for Mars on a stretched-out timeline or focus on deep-space flight technologies but pick a destination later.
5. The panel will make Obama decide. The committee will not be a blame board for scuttling the space program. If that happens, the president must do it himself.
Augustine says the panel will follow its charter, giving options not recommendations.
The White House told Augustine to come back with options that fit the current budget. That’s a bad sign. You can’t do exploration and reduce the space flight gap. The report will include some discouraging scenarios that fit the goal of cheaper.
Interestingly, Augustine sought and received the White House’s blessing to list options that are over-budget. Watch for the report to argue that a space program worthy of a great country costs more. Expect at least one option funding both the current program and a bold exploration course. That would force the president to commit several billion dollars more a year to NASA.
It’s going to be interesting to see what the Obamanator decides.
He’s in the thrall of the CFR, the Trilateral Commission and his adopted daddy Brzezinski was never fond of off-world projects, so I don’t expect more funding coming from this guy.