Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NASA's moon program gets boost in Congress

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The head of a panel of space experts that poured cold water last week on NASA's plan to return to the moon conceded Tuesday that the plan is sound and would work, given enough money.

Norman Augustine, a former chief executive of Lockheed Martin and head of the panel of experts appointed by President Barack Obama, told Congress the Constellation moon program is technically feasible, well managed and capable of putting humans on the moon by 2020 as planned.

Augustine said NASA needs $3 billion US more a year over the course of the plan, increasing NASA's spending on human space flight to $130 billion from $100 billion over the next decade.

NASA has spent $8 billion already on the Constellation program, proposed in 2004 by then-president George W. Bush.

"I don't see the logic in scrapping what the nation has spent years and billions of dollars to develop," said Gabrielle Giffords, the House space subcommittee chairwoman and wife of astronaut Mark Kelly.

The representative from Arizona told Augustine that she had expected the panel to "tell us exactly what we need to do here in Congress with our budget in order to maximize the chances of success."

"Instead, the bulk of the time is spent crafting alternative options," Giffords said.

No good reason to scrap it

"There would need to be a compelling reason to scrap what we've invested our time and money in over these past four years," said Bart Gordon, a Tennessee representative and chairman of the committee on science and technology.

Augustine agreed, but neither he nor panel member Edward Crawley, an engineering professor at MIT, could offer compelling reasons to scrap the program.

Augustine said that without an increase in spending, NASA could do its part in completing the International Space Station but wouldn't be able to get farther than Earth orbit for the foreseeable future.

"It will be a program that will inspire very few people," said Augustine.

Former NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin also testified to Congress to defend the Constellation program. He agreed that the problem is money, pointing out that, adjusted for inflation, NASA's budget as fallen about 20 per cent since 1993.

Related to loss of space shuttle

"As I see it, the commission didn't find anything wrong with the current program, didn't find anything safer, more reliable, cheaper or faster," Griffin testified.

The Constellation project was in part the result of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which burned up on re-entry to Earth's atmosphere in 2003. The Bush administration planned to use the shuttle fleet to complete the International Space Station and retire the fleet in 2010.

The first test of the Ares rocket that is part of NASA's plan to return to the moon was completed successfully last week. The rocket won't be ready to take astronauts into space until 2015 at the earliest, more likely 2017, the panel said.

One suggestion made by the panel was to scrap Ares and rely on private corporations to take astronauts into orbit, a proposal Griffin called "risky in the extreme."


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