Panel: NASA's Moon Plan Lacks Funds

The White House recently asked a panel of outside experts to weigh in on where NASA's astronauts should go next, and how they should get there. The result is the new report "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation." It says NASA's current goal of returning to the moon by 2020 isn't feasible — at least not without more money.

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If Americans want to return to the moon, they will have to put up more money. That's the conclusion of a new report from outside experts. The White House asked them to consider issues like the current plan to reach the moon by the year 2020. That report is optimistically called "Seeking a Human Space Flight Program Worthy of a Great Nation." NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: A panel of 10 engineers, astronauts and scientists spent months studying NASA's human space-flight program as well as alternatives. The committee was chaired by Norm Augustine, a former CEO of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

At a press conference, he said they tried to involve the public as much as possible, using public meetings, Facebook, Twitter. He personally got over 1,700 emails.

Mr. NORM AUGUSTINE (Chairman, the Augustine Committee): They're terrific. One thing they point out is that human space flight is almost like a religion with many people. The only problem is that they're all of a different religion. They all have their own view of what it is that we should be doing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His committee's final report doesn't say what President Obama should do with NASA's manned space program.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: We were not asked by the White House to present a recommendation. We were asked to present alternatives. And we have done that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA's current plan is to retire its space shuttles next year, and end support for the space station by 2015. That's so it can focus on its Constellation program, building vehicles to take astronauts not just up into orbit, but back to the moon and on to Mars. One prototype rocket is sitting on a launch pad in Florida, with its first unmanned test flight scheduled for next week.

But the Augustine Committee laid out a slew of other options. NASA could fund the shuttle for one more year and extend the life of the space station. It could also switch to using private companies to get astronauts and cargo into orbit close to Earth.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: We think NASA would be better served to spend its money and its ability, which is immense, focusing on going beyond low Earth orbit rather than running a trucking service to low Earth orbit.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And when it comes to going beyond low Earth orbit, Augustine says NASA could put off a moon landing and send astronauts somewhere else, like an asteroid or a Martian moon.

But to do any meaningful exploration, under the current plans or some alternative, Augustine says NASA needs more money - a budget boost of $3 billion a year.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: We didn't deal, of course, with how much money is available after you deal with health care and the national debt and two wars and so on. That's beyond our capability.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's for the White House to consider. The panel has already briefed officials on its findings. Doc Mirelson is a spokesperson for NASA.

Mr. DOC MIRELSON (Spokesperson, NASA): NASA will work with the executive offices of the president and put together, I think, an agreed upon recommendation to go to the president.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The rockets and moon plans in NASA's existing Constellation program do have strong support from some members of Congress.

Representative GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (Democrat, Arizona): We are very committed to the Constellation program. We've spent about six years and close to $9 billion on the development of Constellation.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Gabrielle Giffords is a Democrat from Arizona who chairs the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics. Her husband is an astronaut. I asked her what would happen if President Obama wanted to scrap part of Constellation and go for - say, an asteroid instead of the moon.

Representative GIFFORDS: Well, I frankly don't think Congress would react really well to that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She and others have argued that what NASA really needs is full funding for its existing programs, not a new direction.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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