US human spacefaring questioned

Review panel takes a hard look at NASA's goal of returning astronauts to the Moon.

When it comes to how NASA should spend its money putting people in space, just about everyone has an opinion — some of them strident. But at the moment, the opinions that matter most are those in a ten-person committee that listened quietly as key players pleaded their case at a meeting on 17 June in Washington DC.

Panel chair Norman Augustine. Credit: P. E. ALERS/NASA/GETTY IMAGES

Led by retired Lockheed Martin chief executive Norman Augustine, the committee has been tasked by President Barack Obama to review the United States' plans for humans in space. It includes a mix of aerospace executives, astronauts, engineers, a retired general and two scientists: Christopher Chyba, a planetary scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey, and Earth scientist Charles Kennel, chair of the National Academies' Space Studies Board.

The meeting — its first public hearing — showcased the dire budget constraints the agency faces as it struggles to replace the space shuttle, which will be retired by 2010, with rockets that could return astronauts to the Moon. The hearing also made plain the number of people who feel that NASA's existing designs aren't the best way to do it.

Several groups presented alternatives to the committee and said they could be completed faster and more cheaply than the Ares rockets in NASA's planned Moon programme, called Constellation (see graphic). Michael Gass, chief executive of United Launch Alliance in Littleton, Colorado, told the panel that his company's Delta IV cargo rocket could be modified to carry a crew capsule. Stephen Metschan, representing a group that claims to include NASA engineers working in their spare time, presented designs for a system called Direct, based on existing shuttle hardware.

Steve Cook, Ares project manager at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, says such proposals may reflect lingering bitterness over lost contracts. In 2005, a NASA study selected what became the Constellation system as the best method for getting astronauts past low-Earth orbit and back to the Moon. "When decisions are made, somebody wins and somebody loses," Cook says. "Those that didn't win don't like that."

Budget stretch

Getting beyond low-Earth orbit may be too much of a stretch for NASA's budget, however, regardless of which rocket is used to do so. Cook says that the agency has already spent US$10 billion of the $35 billion needed to complete the Orion crew capsule and the Ares I rocket, which together could fly astronauts to the International Space Station, by 2015. He estimates it will cost $100 billion to complete the Ares V, which would pick up astronauts in orbit and carry them to the Moon, by 2020.boxed-text

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The committee will examine not only the means of spaceflight but also its ends. Augustine says his team will "look at the full spectrum of possible destinations" other than the Moon. It has also been asked to evaluate using the space station after 2015.

Augustine says he has received lots of correspondence from scientist friends and acknowledges that many of them feel that putting astronauts on the space station and the Moon isn't all that useful scientifically. But others disagree, he says. Advocacy groups such as the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, have lobbied for other destinations, such as near-Earth asteroids, as intermediate steps to the human exploration of Mars. Furthermore, some astronomers believe that astronauts — and the beefier rockets that are needed to carry them beyond low-Earth orbit — will be instrumental in launching large space telescopes, or building and repairing them in space.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson (Democrat), one of NASA's powerful patrons in Congress, told the committee that Obama would probably heed their advice. "You come to the table with extraordinary influence," he says. Nelson, an advocate for increased NASA funding, exhorted them to find the most meaningful programme goals, even if that meant ignoring the budget constraints given to them.

Although the committee members spent most of the day listening rather than talking, Augustine says his group will not be bashful in its report if it finds that NASA can't do much worthwhile within its budget. "Just because something's cheap doesn't mean it's worth doing," he says.

The committee's report is due in August. Former astronaut Charles Bolden, who has been nominated as the next NASA chief, would implement any changes that result from it.

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Hand, E. US human spacefaring questioned. Nature 459, 1038 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/4591038a

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