I missed the final, extended public meeting of the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans (aka Augustine) committee on Wednesday, unfortunately (I’m at the annual smallsat conference at Utah State University this week). So instead here’s a brief summary of the reports that came out of the hearing:
If there was a central theme, is that the money is not there to carry out the exploration program. As panel member Sally Ride put it, “We haven’t found a scenario that includes exploration that’s viable.” And committee chairman Norm Augustine: “It will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that’s terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area.”
The committee concluded that it would take an extra $50 billion to carry out the current plan, a chunk of money that most people assume isn’t likely to materialize. One alternative under consideration is the so-called “deep space” option that would feature human missions to orbit the Moon, visit NEOs, and eventually Mars; that would cost an additional $3 billion a year. Also under consideration: extending the shuttle though 2015 as well as stretching out the current Constellation plan to fit into the budget, which would delay a human return to the Moon to the late 2020s at the earliest.
Bad news for Mars advocates is that the panel dropped a direct-to-Mars scenario from consideration. “We think Mars direct (flight) is not a mission we are prepared to take on technically or financially,” Augustine said. (This doubtless will not go over well with those Mars advocates that either distributed or endorsed this Mars Direct placard found at the previous committee meeting last week.)
Good news for commercial spaceflight advocates, though, is that “virtually every” remaining scenario includes the development of commercial human space transportation, something the Next Steps in Space coalition trumpeted in a press release Thursday. “We are confident that U.S. based commercial space companies will enhance the scientific and research capabilities of the ISS and ensure that funding now slated to go to Russia can contribute to high tech jobs here at home,” said coalition spokesman Bob Hopkins.
The Augustine committee is expected to brief NASA and the White House on its interim findings on Friday, with the final report scheduled for publication at the end of the month. In a Space News interview earlier this week, Augustine said the committee would present as many as eight options, although by the end of yesterday’s meeting there appeared to be only about four major options remaining. He emphasized that the committee will provide options, not recommendations. “We were asked to provide options and I would undermine the president’s ability to make a sound recommendation if I were to voice my opinion,” he said. “But one of the major facts being weighed is what we can afford. I just don’t have the ability to judge that.” And affordability is going to be a key issue, as it appears clear after yesterday’s meeting that the current plan, with its current schedule, is not affordable.