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Speculation about NASA’s future swirls in advance of Obama’s budget request

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President Barack Obama is expected to deliver his budget request for fiscal year 2011 on February 1, but to hear many commentators tell it, the sky has already fallen on NASA.

On Wednesday the Orlando Sentinel reported that Obama’s budget would essentially scrap the Constellation program, NASA’s current plan to develop a successor to the space shuttle. The shuttle, which has just five remaining scheduled launches, will be retired this year or in 2011, and without Constellation on the horizon, the future of U.S. manned spaceflight is unclear but would likely require commercial providers to boost astronauts into orbit.

In a statement Thursday, former NASA administrator and die-hard Constellation champion Michael Griffin said that the rumored changes, if true, indicate that Obama "has chosen to recommend that the nation abandon its leadership on the space frontier," a decision that Griffin called "even worse" than President Nixon’s termination of the Apollo program. Carolyn Porco, who leads the imaging team for the Cassini spacecraft, lamented the news on Twitter: "Looks like we’re gonna pull out of the race."

Before the budget request becomes official, it’s impossible to say with certainty what it contains. It’s also impossible to project how Congress will act on that budget request. But it’s worth considering: if things play out as it’s feared they will, what are we really losing, and what was lost a long time ago?

Constellation is a Bush-era plan stemming from his 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, which was prepared in the wake of the Columbia accident. The original program: retire the shuttle by 2010, develop a new crew-launch rocket (later named Ares 1) for use no later than 2014, and return humans to the moon between 2015 and 2020.

In 2009, five years after Bush’s announcement, the Obama administration convened an independent committee chaired by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine to take Constellation’s pulse. What the panel found was an ever-widening chasm between stated goals and fiscal feasibility. The group concluded that the only aforementioned target reasonably within sight was phasing out the space shuttle—and even that would likely slide to 2011.

Within NASA’s current budget, Augustine’s panel estimated, returning to the moon with Constellation would be impossible until the 2030s at best—and even that would require dumping the International Space Station (ISS) into the ocean in 2016, just five years after its long-awaited completion. A brighter future for Constellation could be had if NASA de-orbited the ISS and got a significant budget boost from Congress. In that scenario, the Ares 1 crew launcher of the Constellation program could conceivably be ready in 2017, and U.S. astronauts could be back on the moon in the mid-2020s.

But what’s the rush to get back to the moon, anyhow? The U.S. won that race and won it decisively—whatever nation reaches the moon next, whether Russia, China or some other contender, it likely won’t do so within 50 years of Apollo 11. Many have argued that Constellation’s moon deadline was a misguided goal from the start and that a more forward-thinking blueprint for space exploration would involve unprecedented feats, such as a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid. Obama is said to favor this "flexible path" to space exploration.

Augustine’s group laid out several possible paths NASA could take with its manned spaceflight program, some within the agency’s current budget and some with a bit larger outlay. Only the two unsavory choices mentioned above spared Constellation’s crew launcher, Ares 1. Every option that would accommodate the ISS required leaning on commercial entities to lift astronauts into orbit—the approach that Obama is rumored to favor. So why should that choice be so controversial now, when it has appeared almost inevitable since September, when the Augustine commission released its preliminary findings? (It seemed highly unlikely that Obama would ditch the ISS, which has cost a fortune and appears to have strengthened crucial ties with other nations’ space agencies.)

NASA has relied on the private sector to launch satellites for years; even manned shuttle missions have had significant commercial involvement. I couldn’t help but notice, in a Thursday preview screening of footage from the forthcoming documentary Hubble 3D, that the personnel suiting up the astronauts before the May 2009 STS-125 mission were wearing jumpsuits emblazoned with the United Space Alliance logo, not the familiar NASA blue meatball. (United Space Alliance is a corporation jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.)

That’s not to say that private companies are ready for the complexity and risks involved in manned launches, but Augustine’s group estimates that they might be by 2016, a year ahead of Ares 1 in even the most favorable scenario. All of which underscores the point: Increased commercial involvement in human spaceflight is far from ideal on a number of levels, but what is the alternative? The rockets of the Constellation program are behind schedule, over budget, and can apparently proceed only at the expense of the International Space Station. Whatever space race still exists, the U.S. is unlikely to win it by waiting for the Ares rockets to pass muster. NASA has had years to develop a replacement for the aging space shuttle and has made little headway; perhaps it’s time for someone else to give it a try.

Artist’s conception of the Constellation program’s proposed lunar lander: NASA

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  1. 1. mercury7 8:26 pm 01/29/2010

    The main thing wrong with this article is that it does not acknowledge that a commercial program is already underway and has been for quite a while. It is a seperate entity than constellation which was designed for the sole purpose of returning us to the moon and eventually to mars…..Mars was the goal, the moon was practice. Also Obama promised support during the election to return us to the moon by 2020, He lied and now the whole program has been canceled.

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  2. 2. newpapyrus 10:27 pm 01/29/2010

    Thu

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  3. 3. newpapyrus 11:09 pm 01/29/2010

    First of all, its cheaper to get to the Moon if we abandon the Ares I/V architecture. The DIRECT/Jupiter architecture is much cheaper.

    Secondly, the Augustine Commission inflated the cost of returning to the Moon using the Directly shuttle derived architecture in their report by extending the life of the $3 billion a year shuttle program by at least 5 years ($15 billion) and by extending the ISS program by at least 5 years ($10 billion). That’s $25 billion extra dollars not added to the Directly shuttle derived scenario added to. The Apollo lunar module only cost $11 billion to develop in today’s dollars.

    Over a ten year period, current Constellation program funding at $3.4 billion a year would give us a total of $34 billion dollars by the year 2021. Shuttle decommissioning next year would add another $30 billion dollars by 2021. And decommissioning the ISS after 2015 would add another $10 billion. That’s $74 billion in funding.

    Additional Orion funding is probably going to cost $10 to $12 billion over the next 5 or 6 years. The development of the DIRECT Jupiter core vehicle has been estimated to cost between $9 billion to $15 billion. NASA has determined that developing an EDS (Earth Departure Stage) should cost around $2.5 billion. The Altair shouldn’t cost more than $5 to $12 billion to develop. Add program integration and operations cost of about $20 billion over the next 10 years, that totals to a maximum of $61 billion in program development expenditures. $13 billion less than needed. So even if you extended the ISS to 2020, there would still be enough money to fund the Moon program.

    So this is not a problem of finance, its a problem of American leadership if we fail to commit this nation to returning to the Moon to establish a permanent human presence.

    Marcel F. Williams

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  4. 4. Michael Hanlon 5:37 am 01/30/2010

    To economically return to the Moon, we need a second Satellite in our near space. One that goes by the Earth and out to the Moon and around on a 14 day half cycle. One whose orbit resembles: <xox>.
    That free lift to the Moon will allow us to spend more on facilities there.

    We cannot get that second satellite in place until we’ve identified a "Harvestable NEO". We only spend $4 million a year on that most important aspect of our future development of near space and beyond.

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  5. 5. doug 1 6:26 am 01/30/2010

    I consider myself as enthusiastic a supporter of space developement as anyone, but NASA is, or should be, more than just the 40 thousand engineers and administrators who look to it for paychecks and retirement benefits. It’s abundantly clear that space developement is being hindered by the narrow focus we currently have, in part due to the culture of NASA, which sees archaic cold-war era balistic missiles as the best and sole means to launch payloads; missiles which were designed to be secreted in silos and able to be hauled around on trucks across an interstate highway system in order to defeat an enemy attack. Granted, it worked to hurtle human payloads, but it should not have been seen as the be-all and end-all of launching systems. The current thinking has resulted in a self-fullfilling prophecy that says we can’t afford to develope anything else…true enough because with single shuttle missions and their necessarily highly engineered payloads that make swiss watches look like high-school shop projects, costing $1B+, its should come as no surprise.
    We need a new launch system that economically creates a fuel depot/permanent satellite platform in a geosynchronous orbit.
    Good news…there’s one on the horizon which can get a pound of fuel to orbit for $200 instead of $20,000. Go to youtube for ‘quicklaunch inc’ or ‘cannons to space’ and watch the youtube googletech lecture from last December. Or let’s reconsider the 1960s Robert Truax concept of the SeaDragon Rocket. Neither of these are really suitable for defensive ICBMs and hence never got off the ground, but we now are at a stage where we need big scale in big space and are done with the surgical exploration phase. We know what we can do and making a system 100 times the size is not 100 times the cost but without a robust full-scale system space will not be commercially exploitable and therefore unlikely to flourish as it should if we are to become the space-faring civilization we clearly can become, but first we have to make travel to orbit economical. Space-based-solar, asteroid mining, lunar bases and Mars are waiting for our arrival but we can’t show up with a spindly delicate tin-can and party hats, we need to show up with real robust tools.
    NASA has a job to do, but its role will be as an administration guiding and coordinating instead of actually doing the developement work itself. It should be handing out X prizes for industries that are successfully doing what needs to be done in efficient and effective ways.
    It’s raining soup, let’s build a real bucket.

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  6. 6. obiwan1968 8:13 am 01/30/2010

    In my opinion the only reason we still have a space program is the gargantuan amount of job loss if it was ever scrapped. There are not only NASA workers but hundreds if not thousands of sub-contractors that rely on the space program for their daily bread. Even if it was to go bye-bye do you think we would ever see a penny of that money? not on your life.

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  7. 7. obiwan1968 8:15 am 01/30/2010

    In my opinion the only reason we still have a space program is the gargantuan amount of job loss if it was ever scrapped. There are not only NASA workers but hundreds if not thousands of sub-contractors that rely on the space program for their daily bread. Even if it was to go bye-bye do you think we would ever see a penny of that money? not on your life.

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  8. 8. dbtinc 8:47 am 01/30/2010

    finally something sensible – let NASA understand its mission is and has evolved …

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  9. 9. Ganesh Vasudevan 9:25 am 01/30/2010

    I think two distinctions need to be made regarding NASA’s mission goal of studying space: unmanned vs manned space flight.

    Unmanned space research has been breathtakingly successful and has been executed by an army of satellites, probes and rovers. The advances in astronomy and theoretical physics are well documented in peer reviewed journals every year. No private company or foreign space agency can even come close to replicating NASA’s success in this field. Unmanned space flight is cheap and succeeds in the primary mission of exploration.

    Manned space flight however is the most expensive component of NASA’s budget and doesn’t even succeed in the main goal of space research (with regards to publishable data – the metrics real scientist care about). There simply isn’t anything a human can do in space that a probe can’t do better for less money. But as pointed out earlier, the manned space program supports thousands of aerospace jobs across the nation and is thus, politically untouchable (the NASA-industrial complex).

    So then, if we must maintain a manned component to space exploration, can’t we at least get some worthwhile research data out of it? My opinion is that we set our sights higher than the Moon (been there, done that) and venture towards Mars or other new solar system bodies like asteroids or comets. The platform for this phase of human space exploration can be a multiple use vehicle that is parked in orbit, thereby allowing more than one mission to solar system targets of interest. Essentially a spacecraft. Engineering, methods of propulsion, etc can be determined at another point but the singular requirement all design proposals would require for such a vehicle is a habitable quarters. Believe it or not, such modules have already been built, lifted into orbit, and have a proven record for safe human habitation – the ISS. Instead of letting the ISS plummet back to Earth, my suggestion is to repurpose all the modules and any other useful components into the command and living quarters for a future vehicle. The savings in time and money with re-purposing the ISS would be tremendous.

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  10. 10. Dimitris 10:36 am 01/30/2010

    When talking about NASA, Americans have a bad habbit of bringing the ISS to the conversation. I would like to remind you that the "I" stands for international. While it is true that NASA has spent the biggest money on it, it is not the only player in the game, ESA, Rosskosmos and JAXA have all vested interests in the ISS and they would not just let NASA have it for itself, much less deorbit it without a clear succession strategy.

    As for converting ISS to a spacecraft, the quick answer is no, it can’t be done. Its hull has not been designed to withstand the significant pressure of accelerating and deccelerating, it can just tolerate the stress of firing its orbit thrusters. However, ESA has demonstrated a fully autonomous docking of a cargo vehicle, therefore the technology to make it an orbital fuel depot is here and this is where we should be heading.

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  11. 11. warpsix 12:08 pm 01/30/2010

    Obamas War on Science: 10′s of Billions for a Hoax, but Not One Cent for NASAs manned Moon Mission .

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  12. 12. dskan 1:08 pm 01/30/2010

    why on Earth do we want to return to the Moon?

    There’s no mining, no ecology. And Mars is even more desolate.

    There’s nothing to prove, and nothing to gain. Scrap the Constellation and build manned flights to the asteroids.

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  13. 13. gbedford14 6:08 pm 01/30/2010

    We should move the ISS into lunar orbit, as that would solve potential Earth-crash problems and create a way station for future exploration of Mars or the moon.

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  14. 14. newpapyrus 7:09 pm 01/30/2010

    Continuing to confine human civilization solely to our planet of evolutionary origin will eventually lead to our extinction. We must begin to expand the human presence permanently beyond the Earth. Placing a permanent and continuously growing manned facility on the lunar surface is just one meager step towards growing our economy and preserving our species.

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  15. 15. Dale 10:55 pm 01/30/2010

    Open up contracts to non-NASA companies. Good. History has taught us over and over that competition is good. We shouldn’t rely just on NASA.

    But we shouldn’t be downsizing the budget. Apart from the spiritual necessity within us all, as a species, to explore, there are plenty of tangible benefits which a thriving space program provides. It’s an investment in our future. No matter which companies and government agencies get the contracts, we should all be lobbying hard for an increase in the overall funding for space exploration: the manned missions as well as the "faster, better, cheaper" research satellites…lunar and planetary colonies (not just bases) as well as multiple permanent orbiting space stations and colonies.

    If we don’t do it, we will go to our graves regretting our lack of vision and fortitude. We’ll have to admit that Renaissance sailors and American pioneers were both smarter and tougher than we are today–even with all of our supposed technological advantages.

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  16. 16. looselycoupled 10:58 pm 01/30/2010

    "NASA has become America’s leech. Private companys have made far more progress in ten years than NASA has in fourty years. America should no longer provide funds to a "deadbeat, do just what it takes to get more funding to do nothing" company like NASA. Let the private sector fund them for awhile and watch them start making progress when they have to produce results quickly to get more funding. Let private companys buy stock in NASA to fund their dead programs and you might start seeing progress from them. "
    This is the writing of an ignorant fool. Although NASA’s manned space program has been relatively stagnant aside from building the ISS, their unmanned scientific research side has been staggeringly successful. From upgrading and repairing the hubble, to launching literally dozens of successful astronomical, cosmological, and meteorological instruments, to the Mars Rovers project, NASA/JPL has dominated space-based scientific research.

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  17. 17. looselycoupled 10:59 pm 01/30/2010

    "NASA has become America’s leech. Private companys have made far more progress in ten years than NASA has in fourty years. America should no longer provide funds to a "deadbeat, do just what it takes to get more funding to do nothing" company like NASA. Let the private sector fund them for awhile and watch them start making progress when they have to produce results quickly to get more funding. Let private companys buy stock in NASA to fund their dead programs and you might start seeing progress from them. "
    This is the writing of an ignorant fool. Although NASA’s manned space program has been relatively stagnant aside from building the ISS, their unmanned scientific research side has been staggeringly successful. From upgrading and repairing the hubble, to launching literally dozens of successful astronomical, cosmological, and meteorological instruments, to the Mars Rovers project, NASA/JPL has dominated space-based scientific research.

    Link to this
  18. 18. looselycoupled 10:59 pm 01/30/2010

    "NASA has become America’s leech. Private companys have made far more progress in ten years than NASA has in fourty years. America should no longer provide funds to a "deadbeat, do just what it takes to get more funding to do nothing" company like NASA. Let the private sector fund them for awhile and watch them start making progress when they have to produce results quickly to get more funding. Let private companys buy stock in NASA to fund their dead programs and you might start seeing progress from them. "
    This is the writing of an ignorant fool. Although NASA’s manned space program has been relatively stagnant aside from building the ISS, their unmanned scientific research side has been staggeringly successful. From upgrading and repairing the hubble, to launching literally dozens of successful astronomical, cosmological, and meteorological instruments, to the Mars Rovers project, NASA/JPL has dominated space-based scientific research.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Michael Hanlon 12:21 am 01/31/2010

    NASA spends $1.7 million to irradiate monkees and study the effect on task performance and only $4 million to identify NEO’s.

    Can anyone point to mis-spent tax dollars in that scenario?

    And there were ten other monkey projects NASA now won’t tell us about that they’ve wasted money on.
    The asteroid will come and we”ll know a sh*tload about the monkees that will die with us and nothing about the rock.

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  20. 20. NomadicView 10:54 am 01/31/2010

    For what it’s worth, I believe that NASA should have long ago re-defined its mission. If it was to provide opportunity for commercial investment, it should have sold each mission accordingly with a lot of press so that people could understand why the money was being spent. If it was purely for exploration or research, then designing cheap unmanned probes would have probably been the way to go. I mean, besides having bragging rights, what exactly is the advantage to putting a man on the moon at this stage? Wouldn’t it serve our purposes better to explore near Earth objects which might also serve as platforms, mining sites and habitable bases?

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  21. 21. scott1776 12:03 pm 01/31/2010

    As a huge proponent of space exploration and also a believer in the power of free enterprise, I don’t see what’s wrong with a privately funded space program. There are already companies with visionary leadership looking to space as the next step in expansion (e.g. Virgin). Private enterprise, if given the freedom to do so, would find ways to profit from access to space. A much smaller agency (than NASA) with the goal of overseeing launch safety and exploration guidelines would be sufficient. Perhaps this organization would take on an OSHA-like responsibility as well. Other protocols would be handled the same way it is in all other industries: Industries maintain a responsible attitude or suffer the consequences of negligence.

    As to the numerous contractors and the workers who staff them, they need not go out of business to survive: Rather, they can adapt to the new, competitive market growing up around them.

    Nothing so compels the advancement of technology and encourages innovation like the promise of profits or war.

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  22. 22. antonovich 1:24 pm 01/31/2010

    Decline of the Empire, anyone? A lot of money is certainly wasted by NASA but the Chinese don’t care about that. They care about getting ahead of the rest of the world in terms of technology. A great many technologies have come out of NASA, and the Chinese now have the money to get ahead with their own programme. And it helps that they don’t have to worry about congress or the senate! Private enterprise can fill some of the gap but the sums of money needed for the basic research are almost certainly never going to be profitable for manned missions.
    Maybe the world needs new leadership for the exploitation of space?
    A++

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  23. 23. sethdayal 12:46 pm 02/1/2010

    Vasimir folks and nuclear power is going to kick the space industry off its ass. The entire equation has changed.

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2010/01/vasimr-plasma-rocket-for-lunar-tug.html

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  24. 24. spacer 8:36 pm 02/1/2010

    Nasa wants 900 Billion to go to the Moon. I can build a real space ship that will cost, with all the amenities and farming out of subcontrats about $1 Billion. It will also make many more jobs for younger people, instead of the dinosaurs that are oinking at the trough. Can you imagine, that a Space ship can be piloted by a 16-year old girl with a normal IQ, instead of a Jet Fighter pilot who can stand 10 g’s?
    Thousands of jobs could be created with the new technology.
    A real space ship, like a Flying Saucer does not use oil or nuclear power. Their system can also be used to power cars and homes anywhere in the world.
    Many people in Nasa’s employ are only interested in the trough till they can retire.
    Of course they are called Patriots.
    ,

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  25. 25. WoJiuXiang 9:09 pm 02/1/2010

    Space exploration doesn’t provide the pubic the return on it’s investment. It’s best to refocus our scientific efforts on more practical projects. Let’s apply all this money and effort for alternate energy projects or medical research. This is the public’s hard earned tax money which should be used for more applied science.

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  26. 26. Michael Hanlon 3:21 am 02/2/2010

    Wasted money by a bureaucracy doesn’t mean that the premise of the study is wrong. It just means the effort to get answers is misdirected. That is where LEADERSHIP comes in.

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  27. 27. mike cook 10:55 am 02/14/2010

    Before you consider cannons to space, take a look at my U.S. Patent #7,523,892 titled "The Centripetal Reflex Method of Space Launch" which uses a variety of airplanes to twirl a lengthy carbon composite structure at 30,000 feet before performing an ice-skating type whip snap to fling the space load on its way. My plan emphasizes mainly burning jet fuel during the launch maneuvers, but the space vehicle if burning its own rocket motor will have its tanks topped off with LOX and other rocket fuel before separating from the flexing launch structure.

    I am curious where the Space-X corporation fits in all the above discussions?

    Link to this

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