Shannon to review exploration options for NASA

CBS News

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has asked outgoing space shuttle Program Manager John Shannon to carry out an independent assessment of competing options for eventual manned missions beyond low-Earth orbit, officials say. The review will include input from NASA's international partners to align "our efforts with the international space community," Bolden said in a letter to senior NASA managers.

The space shuttle program officially ends Wednesday, Aug. 31, a month and a half after the Atlantis returned to Earth to close out the 135th and final shuttle mission. Remaining work to disposition shuttle assets and to prepare the orbiters for museum display will continue under the Space Shuttle Transition and Retirement Office, led by Dorothy S. Rasco.

Outgoing shuttle Program Manager John Shannon will provide an independent assessment of competing long-range plans for manned missions beyond low-Earth orbit. (File photo: NASA TV)
In his new role, Shannon will review so-called design reference missions, or DRMs, for eventual fights to not-yet-specified deep space targets.

"In order to successfully realize the vision of expanding human presence to challenging destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, we have been tasked and funded to develop space exploration technologies; build a new generation of exploration vehicles; and utilize the International Space Station for exploration technology demonstrations," Bolden said in an Aug. 24 letter to agency managers. "As these efforts are integrated across multiple NASA programs and, as important, coordinated with our international partners, we need to determine multi-laterally which specific DRMs and launch targets we will collectively work toward."

Bolden said NASA is not yet "choosing a mission plan that the agency is going to implement at this time. Rather, we are Identifying potential human exploration scenarios on the horizon, so that we can most productively guide our approved efforts in the near-term, while aligning our efforts with the international space community."

Bolden said Shannon will work with NASA's Human Architecture Team, the agency's chief technologist and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to "comprehensively review all DRMs; understand which technologies each of the Center Engineering and Operations organizations believe should be further developed; understand the capabilities and evolution options for the multi-purpose crew vehicle and space launch system; and work with the ISECG (International Space Exploration Coordination Group) and international partners to achieve a shared understanding."

Bolden said Shannon will provide a recommendation by late fall on what aspects of various design reference missions "should guide our future collective efforts."

"These recommendations can then be employed to determine where future NASA technology development efforts should focus in order to best leverage our limited resources and enhance potential future cooperation with our international partners," Bolden wrote.

NASA currently is struggling in a difficult budget environment to kick-start near-term development of commercial spacecraft to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station while developing plans for a new heavy-lift rocket to boost NASA's government-developed Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle to deep space targets.

Despite criticism from lawmakers, NASA managers have not yet revealed detailed plans for the new heavy lift "space launch system" rocket, how much it might cost, when they believe manned flights to deep space targets might be possible or where such missions might go.

Long viewed as a rising star in NASA's manned spaceflight community, Shannon, a former shuttle fight director, took over the program in February 2008, earning widespread respect for his leadership skills and broad technical expertise. A spokesman said he was meeting with international colleagues in Japan this week and not available for comment.