NASA needs to make a major detour on its grand plans to return astronauts to the moon, a special independent U.S. panel has told the White House.
NASA has picked the wrong destination with the wrong rocket, the panel's chairman said Thursday. A test-flight version of the new rocket, Ares, is on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, awaiting liftoff later this month. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be concentrating on bigger rockets, the panel members said.
Norman Augustine, chairman of the White House-appointed panel reviewing the agency's spaceflight plans, said it makes more sense to land on a nearby asteroid or one of the moons of Mars. He said that could be done sooner than returning to the moon in 15 years as NASA has outlined.
The White House called the report a "thoughtful and comprehensive review of where we have been and where we could be headed in low Earth orbit and beyond."
"Against a backdrop of serious challenges with the existing program, the Augustine Committee has offered several key findings and a range of options for how the nation might improve its future human space flight activities," White House Spokesman Nick Shapiro said. "We will be reviewing the Committee's analysis, and then ultimately the president will be making the final decisions."
The exploration plans now under fire were pushed by then-President George W. Bush after the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster. The moon-Mars plan lacks enough money, thanks to budget diversions, the panel said in a 155-page report. Starting in 2014, NASA needs an extra $3 billion a year if astronauts are going to travel beyond Earth's orbit, the panel said.
The key is where to explore space. In a report, the panel outlines eight options and leaves the choice to President Barack Obama. Three options are part of what the panel calls a "flexible path" to explore someplace other than the moon, eventually heading to a Mars landing far in the future. Augustine said the flexible path option, which includes no-landing flights around the moon and Mars, makes more sense from both a physics and finance standpoint.
Landing on the moon and then launching back to Earth takes a lot of fuel because of the moon's gravity. Hauling fuel from Earth to the moon and then back costs money.
It would take less fuel to land and return from asteroids or comets that swing by Earth or even the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, Augustine said.
"The president has on numerous occasions confirmed his commitment to human space exploration, and the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving our boldest aspirations in space," said Shapiro.