NASA doesn't have nearly enough money to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020 -- and it might be the wrong place to go, anyway. That's one of the harsh messages emerging from a sweeping review of NASA's human spaceflight program.
The Human Space Flight Plans Committee, appointed by President Obama and headed by retired aerospace executive Norman R. Augustine, has been trying to stitch together a plausible strategy for America's manned space program. The panel has struggled to find options that stay within the current budget and include missions worthy of the cost and effort.
Committee members will meet with administration officials today and will report that there is no realistic way to get Americans back on the moon by the target date of 2020, which has been the agency's goal since President George W. Bush signed off on the "Vision for Space Exploration" proposal in 2004. Landing on the moon by 2020 would require drastic budgetary maneuvers such as de-orbiting the International Space Station -- crashing it into the South Pacific -- in 2016.
The final list of options being explored by Augustine's group will include a lunar base down the road. But the committee is most animated by what it calls the "Deep Space" option, a strategy that emphasizes getting astronauts far beyond low-Earth orbit but not necessarily to alien worlds.
Instead, the Deep Space strategy would send them to near-Earth asteroids and to gravitationally significant points in space, known as Lagrange points, that are beyond the Earth's protective magnetosphere. Astronauts might even go all the way to Phobos, a tiny moon of Mars, where the spaceship wouldn't land so much as rendezvous, in the same way that a spacecraft docks at the space station.
Earth's moon would be a possible "offramp" of such a strategy but not a central target for exploration. Putting astronauts on the surface of Mars, and then returning them to Earth, would be prohibitively expensive, according to an analysis by the committee, which will send its report to the president by the end of the month.
The "program of record" -- NASA's current strategy -- has not fared well in the committee's review. Former astronaut Sally Ride, a member of the panel, said the gap between NASA's goals and its budget would total roughly $50 billion by 2020. If the space station's life were extended by five years, she said, the current budget would allow for the completion of a heavy-boost moon rocket in 2028, and that would be without spending money on developing the components of a lunar base.
"If you're willing to wait until 2028, you've got a heavy-lift vehicle, but you've got nothing to lift," she said. "You cannot do this program on this budget."
Committee member Jeff Greason, an aerospace executive, was even more eviscerating, noting that the fixed costs of NASA's current strategy are sure to bust the budget down the road: "If Santa Claus brought us this system tomorrow, fully developed, and the budget didn't change, our next action would have to be to cancel it."
The panel will give the administration a menu of options, including some that require a boost in funding for human spaceflight, which currently costs about $9 billion a year. Unknown, though, is how the administration feels about human spaceflight in general.
Obama, both as a candidate and in the White House, explicitly endorsed sending humans back to the moon, but his decision to create the committee is a sign that the status quo strategy, which carries the imprimatur of his predecessor and is endorsed by Congress, is not long for this Earth.