If you follow space-related news, you surely have heard something about the "Human Space Flight Plans Committee," better known as the "Augustine Commission". The panel was established by President Barack Obama to find a way to match NASA's reduced annual budget to future U.S. ambitions for human spaceflight.
The panel's basic conclusions released this week after three months of study consisted of a list of eight "options" that were already widely known. What was missing, and what is needed, is a clear strategy for the future U.S. manned spaceflight.
Why didn't the presidential commission made up of ten space experts provide any solutions, providing instead only eight options for policy makers? After all, previous presidential commissions such as the Warren Commission investigation of the Kennedy assassination purported to be authoratative.
The reason is that, so far, no one has the courage to admit that "the solution" to the problem simply doesn't exist.
|An upgraded Hubble Space Telescope works great, as this image released by NASA shows, but the agency's future direction remains in doubt|
The fundamental problem is that NASA will soon lack the means to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, relying instead on what amounts to a Russian taxi service. It also has no current way to return to the moon. As things stand now, it will be at least six years after the U.S. space shuttle is retired next year before the U.S. can resume human missions in Earth orbit. A return trip to the moon won't happen before 2020.
Here are the obstacles faced by NASA:
1. The aging Space Shuttle fleet is scheduled to be retired in 2010. Even if the program were extended, the shuttle can't fly beyond Earth orbit.
2. The heavy-lift Ares I rocket, according to NASA estimates, still needs up to eight years of development and $35 billion of R&D funds before it can fly. That's clearly too long and too much money. A newer version, the Ares V, probably won't be ready before 2020.