Panel: NASA Should Skip Moon
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
President Obama will soon have to make some critical decisions about the future of NASA. Next year, the agency is planning to retire its fleet of space shuttles. Meanwhile, NASA is working on new rockets and capsules that could take astronauts back to the moon. But is the moon the right destination?
NORRIS: Well, today an independent panel convened by the White House released its report on the future of human space flight. The panel's chair, Norm Augustine, pronounced this major finding.
Mr. NORM AUGUSTINE (Chairman, Space Advisory Panel): The Human Space Flight program that the United States is currently pursuing is one that is on an unsustainable trajectory.
BLOCK: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to tell us more about this. First of all, remind us why this administration, the Obama administration, wants to review NASA's plans in the first place.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, five years ago, President Bush laid out a plan for going back to moon and onto Mars, and NASA has been working towards that. But a lot of questions have been raised about the progress that's been made and where things stand. Once the space shuttles get retired, there's going to be a gap of five years or more, before new NASA rockets would be ready. And during that time American astronauts could only get into space on Russian rockets.
And there's been criticism of the whole plan to go back to the moon. Some people say, we'll just get bogged down there and not really do anything new. There's been criticism of the new NASA rockets under development. Some people have said other designs would be less costly and make more sense. And then there's the Space Station. I mean, the current plans don't provide funding for the Space Station past 2015. And some people have said it makes no sense to spend two decades planning and building this thing and then just abandoning it.
BLOCK: Hmm. So, some outside experts looked at all this. What did the panel recommend?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, they said it might be wise to provide funding for the space shuttle for one more year. And also extend the life of the Space Station until 2020. And as far as different rocket designs, they basically laid out the pros and cons of a variety of approaches. They said it might be time for private companies to take over transporting crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit. So that NASA can focus more on ambitious exploration efforts. But…
GREENFIELDBOYCE: …their main conclusion was that NASA just needs more money. I mean, they said that no matter what the plan is, if NASA is going to do anything exciting and meaningful in terms of human space exploration, they're going to need about another $3 billion a year.
BLOCK: Well, speaking of human space exploration, what about the idea of returning astronauts to the moon - was that endorsed in this report?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, they said you can go to the moon. I mean, that's one option, but they also came up with a different program that they call the flexible path. And the idea here is that you would send people out to different points in the solar system, like maybe near-Earth asteroids or maybe you would orbit the moon to Mars. And you could visit the moon on this plan, but it wouldn't be the central focus. The focus would be more on getting people further and further out into the solar system with the eventual goal of getting to Mars.
NORRIS: And when President Bush talked about going to Mars, there was a very interesting reaction at that point. Why not just aim for Mars directly?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the panel did look at that and they said that Mars is the ultimate goal. But going there directly would just be too difficult and expensive.
NORRIS: And now that the White house finally has this report, what happens next?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I mean, the president has a lot of other things on his plate right now, but the administrator of NASA, Charles Bolden, recently told one newspaper that he hopes to meet with the president by the end of the year.
NORRIS: And what about Congress?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, Congress had hearings on this committee's work last month and they basically said, you know, they've endorsed NASA's current plan and so maybe the problem isn't the plan, maybe it's just the funding.
NORRIS: And that's certainly going to be a big issue in these times right now on Capitol Hill. Nell, thanks so much.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thanks you.
NORRIS: That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.
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