No to NASA: Augustine Commission Wants to More Boldly Go

NASA should consider extending space shuttle launches into 2011 rather than ending the program next fall, flying the international space station at least until 2020, and boosting spending on its flagging technology programs. That’s the verdict of a blue-ribbon panel which today released its full report on the future of the U.S. human space flight effort.

The panel, chaired by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, released its summary conclusions 7 September, but the full detail backing up that document is now available.

At a 1p.m. press briefing at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club, panel members suggested that NASA’s replacement for the space shuttle may be the wrong ship going to the wrong destination. Instead of moving ahead with a government-built Ares-1 rocket with a capsule on top called the Orion, Augustine and Edward Crawley, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer and panel member, said that NASA instead might rope in private industry for a joint effort to build a less ambitious vehicle that could be ready by 2016—rather than 2017 or later than Ares is likely to fly. That cheaper rocket could take astronauts to the space station well before its demise, which now is slated for 2016.

And the two panel members in addition expressed their interest in bypassing a landing on the moon—the destination set by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004—in favor of a lunar flyby or rendezvous with an asteroid or Martian moon.

Now it is up to the White House to decide which path to take. “Too soon to say,” is all that one Administration official would offer. Health care and other bigger fish may put the future of space on the backburner until closer to the release of the 2011 budget request early next year. But Congress is chomping at the bit to lay out a clear direction. “Let’s get on with it and cease contemplating our collective navels,” says Gabrielle Giffords (D–AZ), who chairs the House of Representatives space and aeronautics panel of the house science and technology committee.

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said:

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 andsustainable 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 ofoptions for how the nation might improve its future human space flightactivities. We will be reviewing the Committee's analysis, and then ultimately the President will be making the final decisions.