An expert panel advising NASA and the Obama administration on the future of human space flight has concluded that going to Mars, or even returning to the Moon, is too expensive under the current budget.
The panel, including professors, former astronauts, and experts from the aerospace industry, has been holding a series of public meetings, hearing from Americans about what they want their country to do in space. At its final public meeting, here in Washington on Wednesday, the group had a different agenda.
"Today, our principal purpose is going to be to finalize the options that we presented when we last met a week ago and also to do an evaluation of them...," announced committee chairman Norman Augustine.
The former CEO of NASA contractor Lockheed Martin, opened the six-hour meeting, which ended up slashing the number of options under consideration from about a dozen to just four basic plans.
The committee was charged with developing human space flight options within current budget guidelines, but former astronaut Sally Ride presented detailed scenarios on the costs of the various options and concluded none of the options would fly, given the financial limitations they had to work with.
"I think the points here are fairly obvious: exploration really doesn't look viable under the [fiscal year 2010] budget guidance. Some things are more expensive than others. We've seen that. Deep Space appears to be the most cost-effective of the exploration scenarios, and it has earlier return also."
The Deep Space scenario she mentioned focuses on learning to work in space, including flybys of the Moon, Mars, or nearby asteroids, and possibly landing on the Moon two decades from now.
The committee also considered NASA's current roadmap — retiring the space shuttle next year, and using Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station until NASA's new Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew capsule are developed.
But the panel said that with the current budget, the new rocket and capsule wouldn't be ready until after the space station was shut down and crashed into the ocean — "deorbited" in NASA-speak — in 2016.
NASA's current Constellation program includes a bigger rocket, Ares 5, which would be capable of taking humans to the Moon after 2021. But the Augustine committee calculates the rocket won't be ready until 2028, given the present budget.
If NASA's current program is beyond its budget, Norman Augustine said more ambitious programs are equally out of reach.
"I think it would be fair to say that our view is that it would be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring in the human space flight area. On the other hand, there are important things one can do to prepare for human space flight and for important achievements, it's just that they won't come as soon."
Human space flight is expensive, no question about it. The space station may end up costing around $100 billion dollars. Even dropping it in the ocean may cost a billion and a half.
For much of Thursday's meeting, the committee members ranked the various exploration options on eleven criteria, including increasing scientific knowledge, expanding technological innovation, promoting economic development, and expanding human civilization beyond Earth. Although the committee assigned scores on a five point scale to each criterion for each option, Augustine said you can't just add up the numbers to provide the best human space flight alternative.
"How you put that all together into a decision, yes or no, or we do this option or that option, depends on the weighting that you assign, of course, to each of those parameters. It includes how important is holding the cost down, how important is going to Mars early or not going to Mars at all, and that will be a judgment issue. I think in the end it'll have to be made by the president and the administrator of NASA, not by us."
The Augustine committee is due to submit its final report to NASA and the White House in a couple of weeks.