msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/23/2009 2:52:16 AM ET 2009-10-23T06:52:16

NASA needs to make a major detour in its effort to return astronauts to the moon, a special independent panel told the White House Thursday.

Under current plans, NASA has picked the wrong destination with the wrong rocket, the panel's chairman said. A test-flight version of the rocket, the new Ares I, is on a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, awaiting liftoff next week for its first experimental flight.

Instead, NASA should be concentrating on bigger rockets and new places to explore, the panel members said, as they issued their final 155-page report. The committee, created by the White House in May to look at NASA's troubled exploration, shuttle and space station programs, issued a summary of their findings last month, mostly urging more spending on space.

During a Thursday news conference, the panel's chairman, retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, focused on fresh destinations for NASA. He said that it makes more sense to develop America's space capability with the aim of putting astronauts on a nearby asteroid or one of the moons of Mars — destinations that could be reached more easily than the moon.

Moon-Mars plan lacks funds
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 their 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 Augustine commission wants NASA to extend the life of the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. Space shuttles are currently due to retire in late 2010, but the panel said they should keep flying until sometime in 2011 because they won't get all their flights to the space station done by that date.

And the space station itself — only now nearing completion — should operate until at least 2020, allowing for more scientific experiments, part of its reason for existence. NASA's timetable calls for ending space station flights in 2015.

The overall focus of the panel's report is on where U.S. space exploration should be headed.

Slideshow: Month in Space The White House will review the panel's analysis "and then ultimately the president will be making the final decision," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said in an e-mail comment.

NASA is already working with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy to plan the steps leading toward Obama's decision, preferably before the next budget proposal is released early next year, said Alan Ladwig, the agency's deputy associate administrator for public liaison.

"It remains premature for anyone at NASA to draw a conclusion or speculate about future spaceflight plans or policies based on the commission's final report," Ladwig told attendees at a commercial space conference in New Mexico. "Staying focused on current missions remains the agency's top priority."

Eight options outlined
The committee outlines eight options. Three of those involve a "flexible path" to explore someplace other than the moon, eventually heading to a Mars landing far in the future. The flexible path suggests flights around the moon and Mars, but would defer landings until later.

Landing on the moon and then launching back to Earth would require 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, due to the reduced pull of gravity, Augustine said.

Eventually, Augustine said NASA could return to the moon, but as a training steppingstone for Mars rather than a major destination in itself, as the Bush plan envisioned.

Panel member Ed Crawley, a professor at MIT, said NASA should explore the inner solar system "to interest the American public in new destinations." He noted that so many new asteroids and comets are being discovered each year that the potential first landing spot "is probably one we don't know about yet."

Augustine said landing astronauts on such a near-Earth object could occur in the early 2020s.

During the news conference, Crawley and Augustine said NASA's plans were valid when they were conceived, in 2005. But when money got diverted and launch dates delayed, NASA's new Ares I rocket lost one of its major purposes: ferrying astronauts to the space station after the shuttle fleet's retirement.

Commercial aspects for future
Crawley said the panel liked the idea of a commercially operated, more basic rocket-taxi to get astronauts into the low-Earth orbit of the space station. If NASA spent about $5 billion to help kick-start the embryonic commercial space business to do the people-carrying, then the space agency could concentrate on heavier rockets that do the real far-off exploring, he said.

Among the commercial options could be upgraded versions of existing expendable rockets, such as the Delta 4 or the Atlas 5. Such rockets are already being used by the U.S. military and have shown improvements in safety and reliability. Also, SpaceX and Orbital Systems Corp. are already receiving NASA funds to develop new launch vehicles capable of sending cargo to the space station — and perhaps eventually crew as well.

NASA's options for heavier-lift rockets include beefed-up versions of the Ares I, known as Ares V or Ares V Lite. Yet another option would be an alternative shuttle-derived launch vehicle called the Jupiter. It would take several years and billions of dollars to design and develop such rockets for deep-space missions.

NASA is slowly delaying some parts of the old moon program. It's rethinking its future annual $10 million spending on a still-unbuilt lunar lander as it awaits Obama's decision on the Augustine panel recommendations, NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma said.

George Washington University space scholar John Logsdon praised the report as "more comprehensive" than NASA's current program.

Syracuse University public policy professor Henry Lambright said he worries about changes that will cause a loss in momentum in NASA's exploration plans. "You've got to make a decision, and you've got to stick to it if you are ever going to get to Mars."

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., criticized the idea of using commercial carriers instead of the Ares I, which was designed in his state. He said the report was "unsatisfactory and disappointing." In his view, the Ares I concept would score higher on safety and reliability for human flights than the commercial alternatives.

Another senator with an influential role in space policy, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, said he asked Obama to use leftover stimulus funds to shore up the space program — and transfer NASA-related work to Florida to minimize job losses due to the shuttle fleet's retirement.

"He's assured me that NASA will get enough money to do what it does best: go explore the heavens,” Nelson said in a written statement.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and msnbc.com.

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