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NASA's future: Now the battle begins

Michael Cooney | Oct. 23, 2009
When it comes down to it, NASA is the most accomplished space organization in the world but its human spaceflight activities are at a tipping point, primarily due to a mismatch of goals and money.

• Commercial launch of crew to low-Earth orbit: Commercial services to deliver crew to low-Earth orbit are within reach. While this presents some risk, it could provide an earlier capability at lower initial and life-cycle costs than government could achieve. A new competition with adequate incentives to perform this service should be open to all US aerospace companies. This would let NASA focus on more challenging roles, including human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit based on the continued development of the current or modified Orion spacecraft.

• Technology development for exploration and commercial space: Investment in a well-designed and adequately funded space technology program is critical to enable progress in exploration. Exploration strategies can proceed more readily and economically if the requisite technology has been developed in advance. This investment will also benefit robotic exploration, the US commercial space industry, the academic community and other US government users.

• Pathways to Mars: Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration of the inner solar system; but it is not the best first destination. If humans are ever to live for long periods on another planetary surface, it is likely to be on Mars. But Mars is not an easy place to visit with existing technology and without a substantial investment of resources. The options here include:

-Mars First, with a Mars landing, perhaps after a brief test of equipment and procedures on the Moon.

-Moon First, with lunar surface exploration focused on developing the capability to explore Mars.

-A Flexible Path to inner solar system locations, such as lunar orbit, Lagrange points, near-Earth objects and the moons of Mars, followed by exploration of the lunar surface and/or Martian surface.

The report comes at a time when NASA is about to test one of the largest and most complicated parts of its future rocket, the Ares I-X. The launch vehicle test is slated for Oct. 27. The flight test will provide NASA with an early opportunity to test and prove flight characteristics, hardware, facilities and ground operations associated with the Ares I.

Ares has had significant technical and design challenges according to experts. First off it has had a weight problem and NASA needs to eliminate vibrations during launch and other challenges. NASA estimates that Ares I and its Orion system represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the overall Constellation program through 2020.

Augustine said of Constellation: The estimated cost of the Ares I launch vehicle development increased as NASA determined that the original plan to use the Space Shuttle main engines on the Ares I upper stage would be too costly. But the replacement engine had less thrust and inferior fuel economy, so the first-stage solid rockets had to be modified to provide more total impulse. This in turn contributed to a vibration phenomenon, the correction of which has yet to be fully demonstrated. This is the nature of complex development programs with budgets that are far more likely to decrease than increase.


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