Today, Norman Augustine, the Chair of the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, testifies to the U.S. Congress to present the summary of their final report to the Obama Administration. The Committee made a number of important conclusions and suggestions for changes in Constellation, the currently planned U.S. human spaceflight program.
“The Planetary Society agrees with their principal conclusion that human space exploration requires a gradual buildup of the NASA budget to at least $3 billion above the current level by 2014,” said Louis Friedman, Society Executive Director. “We also concur with their specific suggestions about changes to NASA’s planned program.” Those specific suggestions were:
Continue U.S. use of the space station beyond 2015 to build on the successful international partnership to prepare for human exploration beyond Earth orbit;
Retire the shuttle as planned at least by March 2011, stating that “interim reliance on international crew services [for access to space during the gap in U.S. capability] is acceptable;”
Develop an Ares V “light,” a single flight of which would take astronauts to Earth orbit while a dual flight could be used for heavy-lift beyond Earth orbit – a change to the current Ares I/ Ares V plan;
Strengthen the incentives to the commercial providers to meet the ISS schedule milestones and missions to Earth orbit, and
Encourage new investment in a “a technology development program [that] would re-engage the minds at American universities, in industry and within NASA.”
The Committee also stated that, “Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration.” However, the Augustine Committee rejected a Mars First scenario, saying it was too difficult a goal to be accomplished in a single step.
"We agree with the Augustine Committee that Mars should be the ultimate goal of human exploration, but that it needs to be reached through a series of exciting and interesting milestones,” said Jim Bell, President of The Planetary Society. "Their Flexible Path option does that,” he added. "It would send humans on their next great adventure, targeting deep space destinations such as the Lagrange Points, a near-Earth asteroid, the Moon, or the moons of Mars.”
Louis Friedman, Executive Director of the Society, noted, “The Flexible Path scenario is very similar to that recommended by The Planetary Society in its Roadmap to Space last year.” Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration was sent to all members of Congress, to leaders in the Administration and presented to the Augustine Committee.
In addition to a Flexible Path option, the Augustine Committee considered going to the Moon first. The Committee did not choose between Flexible Path and Moon First, but said both could be accomplished in their recommended augmented budget.
“To insist on going to the Moon first would create a detour on the road to Mars; the lunar goals of the current Constellation program have inspired neither the public nor the politicians who have to vote with money for space exploration,” said Friedman.
Money played a prominent part in the Augustine Committee deliberations. They said current funding levels created an unsustainable program. The Planetary Society supports increased funding for NASA – for science and exploration, for Earth and for space, and for humans and robots.
“The Augustine conclusion is about right, consistent with what we came up in developing our Roadmap to Space,” noted Friedman, “and involving greater international cooperation in future exploration goals will help share the costs.”
The Planetary Society Vice-President, Bill Nye the Science Guy, said, "Since our beginning, every human on Earth wants to know: where did we come from, and are we alone? To answer these questions, we need to go to Mars with robots now and people someday. Going to Mars is a quite a bit tougher than going to the Moon. It will take international cooperation. This road to Mars will let people everywhere share the adventure and joy of discovery."
In addition to its position on human spaceflight, the Society has also submitted recommendations for Mars exploration to the National Research Council Planetary Decadal Survey. In its white paper the Society urged greater international cooperation and greater human-robotic program cooperation for Mars sample return.
Bell noted, “The Augustine Committee Flexible Path option for tele-operating robotic vehicles on the surface of Mars by astronauts in orbit is precisely the kind of integrated human–robotic program that can benefit both science and space exploration.” He added that Ares V “light” is also the right kind of vehicle for Mars Sample Return and that its use would bring the human and robotic programs closer together.