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Dog Days of Augustine for U.S. Space Panel

The chair of a blue-ribbon panel reviewing the U.S. human space program briefed senior Obama Administration science officials today on what's expected to be a frank assessment of NASA's choices. The panel, led by Norman Augustine, held its final public hearing on Wednesday and has promised to give presidential science adviser John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden its report by the end of this month. Administration sources say the panel will lay out several policy options ...

One option would extend the shuttle beyond its scheduled expiration in 2010 and continue to operate the international space station well into the next decade rather than shuttering it by 2016. That would mean delaying a new launcher and putting on hold the lunar base proposed by President George Bush in 2004.

The panel also may recommend boosting NASA’s annual budget, now $18 billion, by $3 billion to $4 billion. The extra money would allow NASA to complete the shuttle replacement vehicle and rocket that would be used to travel to and from the moon—although likely later than the 2020 date proposed by Bush.

A third option is to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid rather than to the moon. Those sources say the panel has concluded  that a human flight to Mars is too expensive to contemplate in the near term.

Administration officials think that any large budget increase for NASA is unlikely given the tight fiscal environment. But the White House has said that the panel's findings will shape its 2011 budget request to Congress in February. To stay on that schedule, NASA must submit its preliminary budget next month for review by the White House Office of Management and Budget as early as October. The budget request typically remains secret until its release, but one Administration official says that the president could announce a new direction for human space flight in the fall.