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Budget Woes Expected to Ground Some Space Missions

August 14, 2009 at 2:07 PM EDT
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U.S. budget constraints threaten to ground some of NASA's manned space missions. Judy Woodruff looks at the space program and its future prospects.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, sobering words about the American space program and its prospects. Judy Woodruff has our Science Unit story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been more than three decades since an American touched down on the moon. In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed going back there, by the year 2020, and eventually to aim for Mars. That plan called for replacing the shuttle fleet with new kinds of space vehicles.

But the idea of returning to the moon ran into considerable skepticism, both on its merits and over questions of additional funding for NASA. This spring, President Obama commissioned a panel to study the pros and cons of returning humans to space.

But during recent public meetings, several panel members questioned whether there’s even enough money to fund the current program. Earlier today, the panel presented its findings to White House and NASA officials in Washington.

It concluded that human missions to the moon by 2020 may be unrealistic, but there were options the panel considered workable, including going ahead with NASA’s next generation of vehicles for human space flight, a rocket program that could go to the moon eventually and elsewhere, extending the life of the International Space Station until 2020, using commercial rockets to get there, and continuing to fly the shuttle until as late as 2015, while working on a new design that could reach the moon.

I talked with the panel’s chairman, Norm Augustine, at his offices in Rockville, Maryland. He’s the former CEO of Lockheed Martin.

Norm Augustine, thank you very much for talking with us.

NORM AUGUSTINE, chair, U.S. space flight review committee: It’s nice to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are just back from the White House. You made this presentation. What was the reaction?

Program 'not executable'

NORM AUGUSTINE: Really, we've given the White House a dilemma. The space program we have today, the human space flight program, really isn't executable with the money we have.

And so either we have to do something with the current program that's not going to be very successful, I'm afraid, or spend a nontrivial sum more than that to have something that's really exciting and workable, and that's the challenge the White House is going to have, is to sort that out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: "Not executable." Is that primarily because of the cost, the money?

NORM AUGUSTINE: Primarily money. They're short about $4 billion a year from what it's going to take to really carry out a successful program. There are also some real technical challenges.

For example, we don't really know the effect of galactic cosmic rays on human beings that are in outer space for long periods of time. We think that the effects could be very bad.

We also know that weightlessness has a serious impact on humans when they've been exposed to it for a long time. And when one talks about going to Mars, for example, we're talking about 180 days of flight to get there and 180 days to come back, and probably a year on Mars to get the planets to line up so they can come back, so there are a whole new set of challenges that one faces when one looks at exploration of outer space.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So safety in human flight was a big consideration?

Missions becoming more challenging

NORM AUGUSTINE: Safety is the fundamental driver here. And the moon was a huge challenge in its day, but Mars is an even greater challenge today.

And for example, on the moon, you're four days away from getting home and or from getting help. Similarly, to talk to the moon, you could talk back and forth kind of as we are now. On the other hand, if you have someone on Mars and someone on Earth that mission control is trying to help them, and you ask a question, it takes 20 minutes for the -- your question to get to Mars at the speed of light and something like 20 minutes to get back.

So if you say, "Is there smoke in the capsule?" it's 40 minutes before you get the answer. And so they're really on their own out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some people are going to listen to this, look at this, and say, "Wait a minute. We went to the moon decades ago. Why is it so hard to go back by 2020?"

NORM AUGUSTINE: We spent at that time about 4.4 percent of the federal budget on going to the moon each year during that period. Today, I think it's somewhere around .7 percent we're spending.

And so when we went to the moon, we spent a lot of money, and I think one thing people forget is that we went to the moon during the middle of the Vietnam war, a huge war. And so I think it teaches a lesson that the question is priorities.

This country can afford to do great things. It's a question of what the priorities are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was there an underlying philosophy about what the U.S. approach to space exploration should be here?

Options presented to Obama

NORM AUGUSTINE: You know, when we began, other than the kind of fundamental belief that most of us had that Mars is a logical place that you'd ultimately like to wind up, there are other interesting things. You could dock with an asteroid. You can go back to the moon. You can go to one of Mars' planets, Deimos and Phobos.

But other than that, I don't think there was an underlying assumption. Some of us had our own beliefs, and interestingly we changed those beliefs a lot by what we've learned during these last 90 days. We started out with over 3,000 options that we started to look at and narrowed it down to 16 serious options, and we're going to offer four options, plus the basic program, to the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are references in here to relying on commercial space exploration. How much should we expect to see that? Is that the wave of the future?

NORM AUGUSTINE: I think commercial space flight is going to be an important piece of the future. There's a certain analogy to the airlines in the early days, when the government gave the struggling airlines contracts to carry the mail, guaranteed those contracts.

Today, NASA knows how to put things in low-Earth orbit. We do that routinely. That's probably not the right word, but we do it frequently. And it seems unreasonable to us that NASA should spend its time just repeatedly doing what it knows how to do. NASA ought to be exploring outer space and doing new things.

And turning over the transportation of weight and people -- goods and people to low-Earth orbit, which by that I mean a few hundred miles above the Earth, that should be a commercial endeavor, in our view. And to make that possible, someone has to guarantee a market, and that's the government, just as it did in the Postal Service days.

Call to expand budget

JUDY WOODRUFF: If money were no object at all -- and I know that's a fantasy -- is it clear in your mind what the United States should do in space?

NORM AUGUSTINE: Yes, I think it is. And I think we don't even have to have a situation where money is no object. If the NASA budget were increased, the total NASA budget by about 20 percent, we could set on a very logical path, I think, to do fly-bys of Mars, to go back to the moon, to visit the moons of Mars and land on an asteroid, and eventually land on Mars. And we could do it, I think, safely and with technology we know how to eventually produce.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Overall, I think most people would agree, this is a far cry from John F. Kennedy, 1961, clarion call, let's put a man on the moon. Is that permanently behind us as a country, just a distant dream?

NORM AUGUSTINE: Well, I think the era that President Kennedy was speaking in was different in a space sense that we were in a race with the Russians. And today the Russians are our partner, ironically. We use Russian engines on many of our launch vehicles. Some of our companies are partners with the Russians.

So it is a different era. On the other hand, today, I just saw a poll, 72 percent of the people said that the space program was important to them, 52 percent said they cared a lot about the space program. People do care.

And as a matter of fact, two of the members of our group were astronauts. One of them was Sally Ride, the first woman in space. And everywhere we went, people just crowded around them.

Space is important, I think. It's one of the diminishing number of areas where America still has a lead. And if we don't lead, someone else will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Norm Augustine, thank you very much for talking with us.

NORM AUGUSTINE: Thank you very much.