Sep. 14, 2011 at 7:52 PM ET
NASA, the White House and congressional leaders say they're happy about a big new rocket design for going beyond Earth orbit, but many observers of the commercial space industry are already wondering whether this $35 billion trip is necessary.
They worry that the newly announced Space Launch System, or SLS, will soak up too much of NASA’s budget and preclude the development of next-generation technologies such as on-orbit refueling stations for outbound spacecraft. A different approach might not require the decade-long development of a super-rocket, and still open the way for journeys to Mars well before the 2030-2040 time frame laid out in NASA's current plan for future spaceflight.
These critics say the program satisfies the mandates and timetables specified by jobs-conscious members of Congress, but may not satisfy America's long-term aspirations in outer space. They fear that a lengthy, expensive development program could be canceled by a future administration, just as NASA's Constellation back-to-the-moon program was canceled by the Obama White House.
"This has got to be stopped," said Charles Lurio, an independent space consultant who publishes The Lurio Report. "This is insanity."
Lurio is one of the more caustic critics of the big-rocket approach to human spaceflight. He has joked that the SLS and its crew-carrying Orion capsule, also known as the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle or MPCV, should be renamed the "Senate Launch System" and the “Missing-purpose Crew Vehicle.” But he's not alone. Here are some of the questions being raised about the road ahead:
If there is a debate over the go/no-go decision on the SLS, it will probably fall along these lines: Could commercial space providers such as SpaceX, or the Boeing Co., or Lockheed Martin, come up with cheaper, faster, more innovative ways to send astronauts into deep space? Or is the SLS plan, which relies on updated versions of components from past space programs, the surer way to go?
"It's not fair to say this is really a rocket built from shuttle parts," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations. "This is really these components used in a new and novel way."
NASA's big-rocket plan is likely to get high-profile endorsements next week during a House committee hearing featuring the first and last man to walk on the moon (Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Apollo 17's Gene Cernan) as well as former NASA chief Mike Griffin. It sounds as if NASA officials, White House budgeteers and congressional leaders are all on board. Is this the most realistic plan for going beyond Earth orbit? Realistic or not, is it a fait accompli? What do you think?
More about future spaceflight:
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