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Panel to review NASA spaceflight plans

As NASA prepares to return to the moon, the head of a panel asked by President Obama to review the space agency’s future said Friday that he planned to call upon the expertise of astronauts and engineers in determining whether NASA is on the right track. “We’re going to take a fresh look and go where the facts are,” said Norman Augustine, who will head up the 10-member panel. Augustine, the former chief executive of one of NASA’s biggest contractors, Lockheed Martin Corp., said the panel’s meetings would be open to the public. The White House asked for its final report by August.

The review comes at a time of anxiety and uncertainty for NASA, which has been limping along for weeks without an administrator following the resignation of Michael Griffin, former President Bush’s last NASA chief. The Augustine panel has been asked to look specifically at the Ares-Orion spacecraft system that is being built to replace the space shuttle fleet, which is being phased out next year. The first craft in what is known as the Constellation system is scheduled for launch to the International Space Station in 2015 and to the moon in 2020.

The Ares rocket and Orion crew capsule are similar to the Saturn-Apollo system that took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and ‘70s. As with Apollo, the crew capsule will sit atop the rocket. In contrast, the space shuttle rides alongside the rockets, an alignment that makes it vulnerable to debris from the fuel tank on liftoff.

Problems with the system were blamed for both shuttle accidents, the loss of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

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So far, about $7 billion has been spent on the Ares-Orion craft.

One problem the panel will consider is the nearly five-year gap between the retirement of the shuttle system and the first Ares launch.

During that time, American astronauts would have to hitch rides with other nations, specifically the Russians and Europeans, something that rankles many veterans of the only space agency to put people on the moon.

Obama could order the shuttle fleet to keep flying, but NASA safety officials would probably oppose that.

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john.johnson@latimes.com


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