Space panel considers alternatives to NASA's plan for moon base

Jul 31, 2009 By Mark K. Matthews

A presidential space panel on Thursday challenged NASA's vision of establishing a base on the moon and instead weighed other ambitious options that include free-ranging spaceships that could visit destinations throughout the inner solar system.

Noticeably absent, however, was discussion of NASA's work force -- despite a packed hotel ballroom filled with dozens of Kennedy Center workers worried about pink slips.

"We're not designing any option with the idea in mind of preserving or not preserving the work force," said Norm Augustine, the retired CEO who leads the 10-member panel named by the White House to evaluate NASA's human spaceflight program.

KSC is expected to shed up to 7,000 jobs once the is retired in 2010 or 2011, and onlookers crowded the hearing room to see if the panel would offer solutions, or even insight, into how to prevent these job losses.

But even testimony from Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp did little to steer the conversation in that direction. He warned that Florida faces an "economic shock wave" during the time between the shuttle's retirement and the first launch of its problem-plagued successor, which may not be ready until 2019.

"Due to the impending gap, Florida is bracing for a hardship -- the magnitude of which the state has not seen for decades," said Kottkamp, who estimated that the 7,000 job losses at KSC could ripple into 20,000 more unemployed workers on the Space Coast.

Thursday was the third day of hearings this week for the committee, which spent much of the prior two days listening to bleak reports on Constellation, NASA's new system of rockets and capsules that aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and eventually to Mars.

The committee heard that budget and technical problems mean the first mission of the rocket intended to replace the shuttle would launch up to four years later than its scheduled 2015 date. Similarly, without major money and technical changes, a is unlikely to occur before 2024 -- at the earliest, the panel was told Thursday -- and possibly as late as 2035.

Until the new Ares I rocket launches, the United States would have to rely on Russia for access to the space station, and the KSC work force would be decimated.

But instead of examining these near-term problems, the panel spent much of its time challenging the rationale behind NASA's current manned-space vision.

The discussion -- which Augustine called "philosophical" -- swung between ambitious proposals to send astronauts to the moon, Mars and nearby asteroids to questions about why NASA should spend billions of dollars to blast explorers into space.

"This sounds like a general philosophical discussion, but it's awfully important because these are the criteria that we are going to (use to) weigh the options," said Augustine. The committee's report is due in late August.

MIT engineer Ed Crawley, who heads the panel's deep-space subgroup, outlined scenarios that included astronauts exploring the moon; or going directly to Mars with a possible visit to the moon to test technology; or exploring the inner with free-ranging spaceships.

Instead of trying to set up permanent moon base as Constellation envisioned, Crawley called for a phased exploration program starting with flybys and scouting missions, building up to longer visits and eventual bases.

That, he said, is more affordable and achievable.

When Constellation was conceived in 2005, NASA envisioned spending about $100 billion to return to the moon by 2020. But the program has been squeezed by congressional budget cuts, cost overruns and technical hurdles.

"It is unclear whether NASA has the funding for any scenarios that do anything important beyond low-Earth orbit prior to 2020," said Christopher Chyba, a panel member who is professor of astrophysical sciences and international affairs at Princeton University.

So the panel is trying to devise scenarios that could work with roughly $80 billion, although no price tags were put on the alternatives discussed on Thursday.

But even ideas the panel seems to support -- like extending the space station's life by about five years until 2020, or flying the shuttle into 2012 or beyond -- cost billions that NASA doesn't have.

"NASA has a chronic problem: it does not have the budget to develop new systems and operate existing ones," Chyba said.

That reality has begun to hit home for KSC workers, who must stay on the job for NASA's remaining seven shuttle missions but may not have a paycheck after that. And hope is diminishing that Constellation, or any successor, will fill the gap.

"Many of us are second-generation space brats. We even have third-generation members whose fathers and grandfathers worked in the space program," said Lew Jamieson, local-lodge president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, representing 1,500 KSC workers.

"It's inconceivable we would have to go through that flight gap," he said.

A possible solution for some KSC workers would be jobs with commercial space companies. Several panel members said NASA should use domestic aerospace companies to haul cargo or crew into low-Earth orbit.

"We recommend that NASA develop an architecture that proactively engages the commercial space community," Crawley said.

That could spur some jobs locally. SpaceX, the California-based company that has a contract with NASA to develop rockets that can reach the space station, wants to launch from Cape Canaveral.

Since 2006, the state has given SpaceX more than $1.6 million in incentives, in hopes it will hire unemployed KSC workers.

Still, the company has yet to show its rockets can reach the space station. And right now, its contract is to deliver only cargo, not astronauts.

___

(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at www.orlandosentinel.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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User comments : 17

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dirk_bruere
3 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2009
Face it - NASA is not going to the moon or anywhere else. Moonbase by 2035! What a joke.
alq131
3 / 5 (3) Jul 31, 2009
It is a sad time indeed. We're decrying how bad schools are and how bad our science and math scores are, and we continue to put the kabosh on things that would motivate or entice kids to learn those subjects.

Instead, we tell them that we spent 20 years building the ISS and for its "operational" lifetime of five(!) years we will not be a space-faring nation and will have to rely on Russia to get there. While at the same time China will probably send astronauts at least around the moon before we're back in space.

It's time for some big walleted American investors to give hope back to us. Let's start private space NOW!! Government won't (and shouldn't) do it. Think about a lunar sample return...how much is a real moon rock worth? seems that you could pay for a mission. Or create a bunch of little rovers on the moon that for $19.99 anyone can drive for 5minutes over the internet...THAT would start to generate revenue. Anything!!! Come on Entrepreneurs!!!!
Nik_2213
3.3 / 5 (3) Jul 31, 2009
Watch out, NASA, Reaction Engines is gonna do an end-run on you...
zevkirsh
2.7 / 5 (3) Jul 31, 2009
maybe 2035 we'll have enough printed dollars to to burn for shuttle fuel to get to the moon to escape america. there will be no use for the paper anyways by 2035. maybe they can use it for toilet paper also while attempting to fix the broken toilet.
LariAnn
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2009
If NASA doesn't do anything in space after the shuttle retires, the niche is wide open for private companies. I'd bet that commercial enterprises can be far more efficient and quick at getting to the Moon and beyond than a bureaucratically bloated NASA ever could. Check out Virgin Galactic for what can be done with a lot less money. We've been led to believe that going into space is prohibitively expensive; that might be what pioneers who wanted to sail around the world were told when they were seeking funding. Now individuals in sailboats have done it. Let's not wait for NASA and the status quo to keep us Earthbound.
zbarlici
2.5 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2009
SWEET JESUS... no NASA human on the moon `till 2024? By then Virgin Glactic would have a space hotel orbiting Mars and Cantonese would be the offiial language spoken on the moon!!! WAKE UP AND SMELL THE ROSES!
zbarlici
3 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2009
Nasa has had great glory in the past and its legacy lives in the technology it has helped spawn. There should be no doubt as to the great influence it has had in helping technology evolve - while, behind-the-scene, shaping the modern world into what it is today. Great things come from great aspirations, and Nasa has had its turn. It just seems like going back to the moon is just too damn mundane and pointless... how the heck are we even supposed to be able to look past the moon mission and onto Mars, when they don`t even expect to be able to get to the moon by 2024? In Nasa time, Mars is just to damn far away.
DDBear
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 01, 2009
Government spends too much money on wasteful social programs that are often used by illegal immigrants, pouring lots of money into disaster areas with awful financial coordination (if you choose to live in tornado zone, don't expect the government to bail you out!), bailing out crooked Wall St firms like AIG, and so on... No wonder NASA doesn't have any money left over! We must stop re-distributing money because of the stupid actions of people (illegal immigration, choosing to live in disaster areas, corrupt executives) and instead put the money into science and technology to advance human civilization.
austux
5 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2009
@DDBear: the money itself is a problem bigger than any overt shortage of it. Our entire financial system (worldwide, not just the USA) is badly broken in several key ways & has been forever. The Shuttle & ISS are only symptoms of this, not causes.
sender
1 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2009
Please use the world's dismantling synchrotrons for space fountain construction to create energy and send modules to space rather than trash yarding them.
otto1923
1 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2009
SWEET JESUS... no NASA human on the moon `till 2024? By then Virgin Glactic would have a space hotel orbiting Mars and Cantonese would be the offiial language spoken on the moon!!!
So what? By then the US will be a part of the United States of Earth.
zbarlici
1.3 / 5 (3) Aug 01, 2009
wo what a vision, and as much as i would love to see that come true, sadly it most likely will not. Unless china screws up in securing the vast material resources it requires to continue to be a manufacturing powerhouse, most likely it will be the United planet of CHINA!! and, in order to thrive in the new small-eye federation, YOU WILL BE FORCED TO SPEND THE NEXT 15 YEARS LEARNING INTRODUCTORY CANTONESE!!... while it only takes them two weeks to learn engrish...
probes
not rated yet Aug 03, 2009
Yeah! And me also!!
david_42
4.3 / 5 (3) Aug 03, 2009
NASA has spent the last 40 years protecting their bureaucracy and killing off the competition, from private operations like Roton to the Delta Clipper. Now they push Ares as being derivative of the Shuttle technology, when all of the primary components of Ares I or V are completely new or radically modified. D. D. Harriman was right.
Trans
5 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2009
We can give $700 billion for the banks, but we can't find the money to support the program that secured Man's Greatest Achievement in History? We should be funding the ISS, a Space Plane, a Moon base AND a trip to Mars!
korgo
not rated yet Aug 09, 2009
virgin is pretty simple by getting 100miles, the ISS is 200 miles.. we still need to solve huge things such as radiation protection for anything higher then 400 miles... including moon/mars/comets. etc

I say we continue with the plan, but start a separate system somewhere other then FL as a backup, include europe, etc

Korgo
http://www.eightforums.com
Ethelred
not rated yet Aug 12, 2009
Dude you are such low life SPAMMER

Oh dear its the return of the SPAMMER. Yet again. Fourth time now.

Go away, just go away.

Words and lyrics by Blondie

Ethelred