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Sat, Oct 24, 2009

Human Spaceflight Commission Releases Its Final Report

155 Page Document Concludes Human Spaceflight On An "Unsustainable Trajectory"

NASA's Human Spaceflight Commission, better known as the Augustine Commission after its chairman Norman Augustine (pictured, below), has released its final report for the White House, and the outlook for the future of government-funded human spaceflight is fairly bleak.

"The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory," the committee wrote in its opening sentence. "It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most demanding and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science."

The committee report stresses that space exploration has become a global enterprise. "Many nations have aspirations in space, and the combined annual budgets of their space programs are comparable to NASA’s. If the United States is willing to lead a global program of exploration, sharing both the burden and benefit of space exploration in a meaningful way, significant accomplishments could follow," the committee writes.

Further, the committee acknowledges the contributions of commercial spaceflight ventures. "If we craft a space architecture to provide opportunities to this industry, there is the potential—not without risk—that the costs to the government would be reduced. Finally, we are also more experienced than in 1961, and able to build on that experience as we design an exploration program. If, after designing cleverly, building alliances with partners, and engaging commercial providers, the nation cannot afford to fund the effort to pursue the goals it would like to embrace, it should accept the disappointment of setting lesser goals."

The report documents in detail five areas of human activities in space:

  • What should be the future of the Space Shuttle?
  • What should be the future of the International Space Station (ISS)?
  • On what should the next heavy-lift launch vehicle be based?
  • How should crews be carried to low-Earth orbit?
  • What is the most practicable strategy for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit?

Constellation Prgram Breakdown Source: NASA

The committee recommends funding Shuttle operations at least through 2011. "The Committee noted that the projected flight rate is nearly twice that of the actual flight rate since return to flight in 2005 after the Columbia accident two years earlier. Recognizing that undue schedule and budget pressure can subtly impose a negative influence on safety, the Committee finds that a more realistic schedule is prudent. With the remaining flights likely to stretch into the second quarter of FY 2011, the Committee considers it important to budget for Shuttle operations through that time."

Similarly, the committee recommends an extension of funding for ISS. It seems unwise to de-orbit the Station after 25 years of planning and assembly and only five years of operational life. A decision not to extend its operation would significantly impair the U.S. ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships. Further, the return on investment from the ISS would be significantly increased if it were funded at a level allowing it to achieve its full potential.

ISS Breakdown Source: NASA

Looking to the future, the Associated Press reports that Chairman Norman Augustine said in a news conference Thursday that NASA should be concentration on larger rockets to take human spaceflight beyond the moon. Given the cost in fuel that is required to lift a lunar module off the moon's surface, Augustine said it makes more sense to target landings on asteroids, or even a Martian moon. A return to Earth's moon could be a good training exercise, he said, but not the destination envisioned by the Bush administration.

In the end, though, the decision rests with the Congress and the President. White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in an e-mail comment "ultimately the president will be making the final decision," though Congress does have a say in how tax dollars are spent. In the meantime, AP reports that NASA is incrementally delaying parts of the old moon program. It is reconsidering the $10 million per year allocated for a lunar lander that remains unbuilt, and is waiting for Obama's decision on the Augustine panel recommendations, said NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma.

FMI: http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/396093main_HSF_Cmte_FinalReport.pdf


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