In addition to its central finding about the adequacy of NASA’s budget, the twelve-page Summary Report by the “Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee,” chaired by Norman Augustine, has other findings and recommendations regarding the agency’s programs. Among them are:
“First, space exploration has become a global enterprise” the committee writes midway through the first page of the summary. Noting that the total of other nations’ funding for space programs is comparable to that of NASA, the committee recommends that the United States consider partnering with other nations “to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.” While not stating so, this approach would appear to be one option for addressing the funding shortfall.
The committee determined that shuttle flights will likely “stretch into the second quarter of 2011,” beyond the vehicle’s scheduled retirement a year from now. The committee also predicted it “will be at least seven years” before a replacement will provide a U.S. human launch capability. The committee found that “interim reliance on international crew services [is] acceptable.” One option to reduce this gap would be to continue to fly the Shuttle “at a minimum safe flight rate to preserve U.S. capability to launch astronauts into space,” after a shuttle re certification.
International Space Station:
“The Committee is concerned that the ISS, and particularly its utilization, may be vulnerable after shuttle retirement,” the summary stated, later adding “it may be prudent to strengthen the incentives to the commercial providers to meet the schedule milestones.”
Also, of note: “The Committee finds that the return on investment of ISS to both the United States and the international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life [from 2015] to 2020. It seems unwise to de-orbit the Station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life. Not to extend its operation would significantly impair U.S. ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships. Further, the ISS should be funded to enable it to achieve its full potential: as the nation’s newest national laboratory, as an enhanced test bed for technologies and operational techniques that support exploration, and as a framework that can support expanded international collaboration.”
The schedule has slipped for the development of the Constellation Program’s two launch vehicles, an astronaut capsule, and lunar lander. The committee suggests that a lighter capsule may reduce operational costs, but cautions that a redesign would lead to additional delays and a “significant increase in cost.” The summary includes a discussion of various heavy launch vehicles.
The committee also states that “it is an appropriate time to consider turning this transport service over to the commercial sector. This approach is not without technical and programmatic risks, but it creates the possibility of lower operating costs for the system and potentially accelerates the availability of U.S. access to low-Earth orbit by about a year, to 2016. The Committee suggests establishing a new competition for this service, in which both large and small companies could participate.” The report offers strategies for reducing the cost of space exploration by encouraging commercial activity, allowing NASA to concentrate on the development of new technologies.
The report outlines the advantages of three paths for human exploration of the inner solar system: going to and landing on Mars, going back to the Moon, and a “Flexible Path to inner solar system locations, such as lunar orbit, Lagrange points, near-Earth objects and the moons of Mars, followed by exploration of the lunar surface and/or Martian surface.”
“The Committee finds that Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination." Instead, two “viable exploration strategies” are suggested, going to the Moon first and the Flexible Path, about which the committee stated:
“There is a third possible path for human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, which the Committee calls the Flexible Path. On this path, humans would visit sites never visited before and extend our knowledge of how to operate in space – while traveling greater and greater distances from Earth. Successive missions would visit: lunar orbit; the Lagrange points (special points in space that are important sites for scientific observations and the future space transportation infrastructure); near-Earth objects (asteroids that cross the Earth’s path); and orbit around Mars. Most interestingly, humans could rendezvous with a moon of Mars, then coordinate with or control robots on the Martian surface.
“The Flexible Path represents a different type of exploration strategy. We would learn how to live and work in space, to visit small bodies, and to work with robotic probes on the planetary surface. It would provide the public and other stakeholders with a series of interesting ‘firsts’ to keep them engaged and supportive. Most important, because the path is flexible, it would allow many different options as exploration progresses, including a return to the Moon’s surface, or a continuation to the surface of Mars.”
“Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 budget guideline.” See FYI #111.
The Summary Report is available here.