Expert Panel To Advise Obama On Spaceflight

An expert panel asked by President Obama to make recommendations about the future of human spaceflight has said the goal of returning to the moon by 2020 isn't feasible if NASA's budget continues at its current level. The panel is scheduled to the brief the White House on Friday.

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Try to look into the future of American spaceflight and you can only see seven launches ahead. That's how many times NASA plans to use its aging space shuttles before retiring them. What comes next is not certain. It's almost time for some experts assembled by President Obama to finish their deliberations on what to do now. And we have a report this morning from NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: President Obama's independent blue ribbon panel on the future of human space flight held what was billed as its final public meeting in a big auditorium in Washington, D.C. The experts sat on a stage, and looming over them on a big screen was an image of a suited up astronaut.

Mr. NORMAN AUGUSTINE (Former CEO, Lockheed Martin): Today, our principle purpose is going to be to finalize the options that we presented when we last met.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Norman Augustine chairs the panel. He's a retired CEO of Lockheed Martin.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: At the end of today, it's our hope that we'll have a generally good agreement on the options that we would label for the decision makers.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some decisions definitely need to be made. NASA's current plan would retire the space shuttle next year. Astronauts could then ride Russian rockets to the space station. But right now, there's no money in the budget to support the space station past 2015. What's more, NASA is supposed to be building new space vehicles to return to the moon by 2020. But the expected money for this program has been cut over the years, and now this panel says that moon goal just isn't feasible if NASA's budget continues at its current level of about $18 billion a year. Former astronaut Sally Ride put up a bunch of charts showing the numbers.

Ms. SALLY RIDE (Former Astronaut): The current budget guidance is very, very, very limiting.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even if NASA wanted to take space exploration in a different direction, this budget would limit what it could do.

Ms. RIDE: So far, we haven't found a scenario that includes exploration that's viable.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She and the rest of the panel did discuss options that NASA could pursue if it got more money, things like extending the life of the space station, or sending astronauts not to the moon, but out into deep space to fly by things like asteroids. Some options were eliminated. For example, the committee generally agreed that Mars was the ultimate goal, but trying to go there directly would be too technically challenging and expensive.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: I really want to emphasize we're not giving up on Mars at all. We're just saying that we think to go direct to Mars with today's technology and money is riskier than we would want to be associated with.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: After the meeting, Augustine said he felt they'd made progress in evaluating possible ways forward and the financial reality.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: I think it would fair to say that our view is that it will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring in the human's space flight area.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: On the other hand, he says, even with a limited budget, NASA could prepare for future spaceflight achievements.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: It's just that they won't come as soon.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says they're working to finish up their report by the end of the month. But on Friday, they'll brief White House officials on their findings so far.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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