Space Panel: Exploration Requires Bigger Budget

NASA's current plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 isn't going to happen without a lot more money. A White House panel of independent space experts estimated it would cost about $3 three billion a year beyond NASA's current $18 billion annual budget. The panel says there are other ways people could explore space without landing on the moon.

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We've been following NASA's plan to return astronauts to the moon by the year 2020. But that is not going to happen without a lot more money - billions and billions more. That's the conclusion of an expert panel convened by the White House to consider the future of human space flight. The panel says there are other ways that people could explore space without landing on the moon. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA has been flying the space shuttles for decades, but the agency is currently planning to retire its aging fleet after a half dozen more missions. Under a plan developed by the previous administration, astronauts would then ride Russian rockets to the space station for a few years, while NASA focused on building rockets that could go to the moon and beyond.

Professor EDWARD CRAWLEY (Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The goals of the program are very lofty, you know, to explore the moon and go on to Mars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Edward Crawley is a professor of engineering at M.I.T. He says trouble is NASA's resources don't match these goals.

Prof. CRAWLEY: In simple words, there isn't enough money in the budget to do the program which has been laid out.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Crawley serves on a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts put together by the White House. It's been studying NASA's current program, as well as other possible ways forward, and has just released a summary of its findings.

The report says the space shuttle may need funding for an extra year to complete its remaining missions. And it also says there's good arguments for extending the life of the international space station. Currently, there's no money budgeted for the station past 2015. But, as Crawley points out, we've spent over two decades working on it.

Prof. CRAWLEY: And it really only became a functioning laboratory within the last year. So the idea that after only about five years this national laboratory would be retired really didn't make sense to us.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The space station is close to Earth - just a couple hundred miles up. And the panel says the government should consider whether private companies could take over much of the space traffic to low-Earth orbit.

Prof. CRAWLEY: It's an appropriate time to say, you know, is this something that could essentially privatized, that the commercial community could do as a commercially provided service, more cost effectively than the government.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This would allow NASA to focus on more long distance space travel, which it could do if it had more money. The panel says NASA's budget needs a boost of about $3 billion a year to do meaningful human exploration.

Using the rockets that NASA is currently developing or different designs, NASA could either return astronauts to the surface of our moon or pursue what the panel calls a flexible path of exploration. Crawley explains that astronauts wouldn't land anywhere but would venture out farther and farther from Earth, flying by things like asteroids.

Prof. CRAWLEY: And even as far as going in a fly-by of Mars and into Mars orbit and rendezvousing with Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars.

Dr. JOHN LOGSDON (Director, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University): If you read this report I think it becomes rather clear that they have a preferred option.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: John Logsdon is a space policy expert at George Washington University. He wasn't on the panel but he thinks its members seem to prefer this flexible path over a moon landing. Still, he says, it's ultimately not up to them. They just offered up options.

Dr. LOGSDON: There's a menu that's been laid out, but it's really up to President Obama to make the choice among the options that he asked for.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A White House spokesman said, in a written statement, that until the options have been thoroughly considered it would be premature for anyone to draw conclusions from the committee's work. He said the president would consult with senior advisors, including the administrator of NASA, before making any final decision.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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