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Aug. 5 2009 - 9:41 am | 25 views | 2 recommendations | 7 comments

The Ides of Augustine upon us

endeavourThe Blue Ribbon commission that is taking a hard look at what is next for NASA will soon be serving up a menu of alternatives for the Obama Administration to ponder.

The group, headed by respected aerospace veteran Norm Augustine has been working long and hard on a tight deadline. Now is not the time to dally. The shuttle fleet is seven launches (or one mishap) away from mothballs. And, in order to keep Americans in space for the next five years (at least) NASA will be forced to buy seats on rockets built by its former space adversary – Russia. What a difference forty years makes.

The Obama Administration created the Augustine to see if there was a way to shrink the gap between the last shuttle flight and the first launch of whatever will be the American ride to space in the future.

The Augustinistes are not supposed to write a single prescription – but instead offer a menu of options.

At first they were told to keep those choices within the current NASA budget constraints. But the group quickly determined that was a fool’s errand – as a dearth of funding makes even the current concept and design for a return to the moon unattainable. So they asked for permission to color outside the lines – and we will soon see how vividly they have drawn up a picture for America’s future in space.

Should we return to the moon? Or bypass the been-there-done-that Earth satellite and simply aim to put men and women on Mars? Is a mission to a near Earth asteroid a good intermediate choice? Or are we so strapped we should simply be content to remain in low earth orbit? Or maybe we should get out of the piloted space business altogether…

First a word about the shuttle. It is too late in the game to extend the shuttle era in any meaningful way. You can put a fork in that decision. Of course anything is possible if you throw enough money at it – but it would cost too much to put the full shuttle processing apparatus back together again.

There is one extra external fuel tank – so it is possible NASA could add one more shuttle mission to the manifest. You could also shorten the gap by changing the sunset date for the shuttles. As it stands now, the shuttle fleet is supposed stop flying by the end of 2010 – no matter how many missions squeeze their way in between the thunderstorms, hurricanes, leaking valves, frayed wires, loose pip pins or voracious woodpeckers which all have, at one time or another, kept orbiters anchored to launch pad 39A/B.

The commission will give the Obama administration the option to simply fly out the remaining shuttle manifest to complete the space station – without a certain end date. This will mean the shuttles could keep flying to the end of 2011 – or maybe even longer. Frankly, this makes a lot more sense to me from a safety perspective. Much better not to be tempted to push the old birds past the breaking point in pursuit of a post-it note on a calendar.

That said, keeping the shuttles flying at any rate at all involves about a $3 billion dollar annual cover charge. If the Peter the shuttle robs Paul the new vehicle the gap will simply stay the same – but move to the right.

So what about the next vehicle? For that matter, what about the next destination? Should the Obama administration “go big or go home” in space? More on that next time.


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  1. collapse expand

    Thought provoking article, Miles.

    As someone who has a deep and abiding love of the US Space Program, I of course say that we “go big”. The other option is not acceptable.

    The thought of the US, first to the moon, settling for “buying a seat” on a Russian built rocket is a travesty. Has anyone looked at the cost effectiveness of this move? Seems to me that money would be better spent on our own vehicles, n’est pas? Isn’t that what American ingenuity is all about?

    The biggest question to me: whether to keep the shuttle flying or throw all of the funds into new technology? You brought up a great point with the mention of safety. There is little point in spending on ‘life-support’ when the end is inevitable and could be better spent on a new idea.

    Finally, in ‘going big’ we uphold a great and honorable tradition of Americans in space. Moon or Mars matter not, the point is that we go somewhere better, faster and farther. It is simply what we do!

  2. collapse expand

    I say we press on. Why stop now when we have accomplished so much. The public needs to be stimulated and goals need to be set for our children who are our next generation of scientists and astronauts. NASA needs to be charged with taking us to where we have not been before. Whether it be to Mars or something closer like a spaced based solar power project. There needs to be a public relations push by NASA to bring these thoughts and ideas to the forefront to re-stimulate the public and our children. We can’t slow down. We need to capitalize on what we know and have learned to help make that next step to the next frontier, wherever that may be.

  3. collapse expand

    Good as always, Miles. If it were just about the dollars, I would say continue going to the ISS with the use of the SpaceX Dragon Capsule, coming on-line next year (good god- is it that soon?). It would be very much cost effective to keep flying Americans to the station with the Dragons. I really don’t see a drawn out ‘gap’ anymore, with SpaceX available.

    It really is time to go big, and we’ll do so with the multiple options coming up. NASA can’t simply turn their backs on something because they didn’t build it. Buy some Dragons, strap on a booster, and take them to the moon. Purchase a BA 330, and put that up as a sort of hotel in lunar orbit. Put another one in the L1 Lagrange point. Fly over to a Near Earth Asteroid. It’s time to check out the neighborhood!

  4. collapse expand

    We have learned so much about space walks that it would be a travesty to throw all of that away. The missions to keep the Hubble going show the benefits to having a shuttle-like vehicle. I assume the Mars/Moon question refers to a manned outpost. I would vote for the moon first for pragmatic reasons. We still have a lot to learn and the moon at least provides a chance for help from earth if there is an emergency (and possibly even an escape option). We have learned a lot from the space station, but it’s not the same as a long term manned outpost on a planetary body. Plus, we may be able to grow the moon base (e.g. with low-g manufacturing capabilities, etc.). The close proximity of the moon gives us several more options whereas a mission to Mars would be purely expeditionary.

  5. collapse expand

    Miles,
    Does NASA qualify for the “cash for clunkers” program?

    Robert

  6. collapse expand

    To get everyone behind the idea of going big, or maybe even just to maintain, needs a more effective public relations effort by NASA. I remember when we first went to the Moon, the excitement, the heart thumping anticipation mixed with fear too. Now, an announcement on the evening news that the shuttle has touched down has no real effect. NASA has to get these dreams and their importance back into the collective conscience of America. Maybe we need a Carl Sagan, someone to take our imaginations on a rocket into the next millennium.

  7. collapse expand

    Great work Miles – looking forward to the followup!

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    About Me

    I am a 26-year broadcast news veteran - with nearly 17 years as CNN’s science, aerospace, technology and environment correspondent. I am an active pilot, airplane owner and a lover of all things that fly. I was slated to be the first journalist to fly on the space shuttle before the Columbia accident ended that dream. I am based in New York City - married with two teenagers and two dogs.

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