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Space advocates seek NASA course correction Radical surgery is needed on NASA’s vision for space exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond, according to a study released by a space advocacy group.
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Radical surgery is needed on NASA’s vision for space exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond, according to a study released Monday by a space advocacy group.

The assessment from the New York-based Space Frontier Foundation calls for immediate elimination of all work on the Block 1 version of NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle and for a delay in developing the Crew Launch Vehicle — a solid-rocket booster design derived from shuttle hardware and now escalating in cost. The study urges NASA to reconsider using the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launchers in place of the Crew Launch Vehicle.

The policy white paper issued Monday is titled “Unaffordable and Unsustainable: NASA’s Failing Earth-to-Orbit Transportation Strategy.” The group contends that NASA plans are flawed, prescribing as a fix far greater use of America’s “New Space” industry that is energized by free enterprise and entrepreneurship.

The white paper asserts that NASA has made fundamental errors in its implementation of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, first enunciated in January 2004. It says there is an urgent need to force NASA to decisively transform its relationship with the private sector.

Opening salvo
“We’ve put a lot of time into this … and we do believe the study will have an impact,” said Jeff Krukin, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation. “Think of this as an opening salvo in a long-term strategy … a long-term campaign,” he told

The 18-page policy white paper recommends that the White House and Congress should specify, as a matter of policy and/or law, that NASA cannot develop, build, own or operate a new vehicle for crew or cargo missions to the international space station or to other parts of low Earth orbit. For those missions, NASA should be required to buy a service from U.S. companies, the study says.

Furthermore, the study counsels that the U.S. government should immediately transfer $2 billion to $3 billion from the CEV and CLV efforts to pay for an additional round of what the group sees as a now-underfunded Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.

NASA is soon to announce which private companies it has selected under the COTS program to share in $500 million it intends to spend through 2010 to foster new space station crew and cargo delivery services.

The Space Frontier Foundation policy paper advocates adding at least $2 billion to the COTS initiative, to create an additional COTS competition that would promote six to eight additional contracts.

Major dead end
Spotlighted in the study is a call to stop work on the CEV Block 1, which is designed for missions to the international space station. That function can be handed over to private space firms, the foundation says. NASA should focus on the CEV Block 2, which is specifically targeted for moon-and-beyond exploration goals.

Using the tools of capitalism is now our nation’s best, and only, chance to have an affordable and sustainable human space exploration program, the white paper says.

“We’re headed for a major, major dead end,” Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, said during the group’s NewSpace 2006 conference, held here over the weekend and co-sponsored by the Aerospace Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“We’re going to keep pounding the drum and it’s going to get louder and louder,” Tumlinson said.

The current NASA architecture of spacecraft and boosters to put in place a space vision of exploration is not going to happen, Tumlinson advised. “It’s going to collapse of its own weight. What I worry about is that it’s going to take science down with it … going to take down all the other possibilities at the same time … it is politically unsustainable and is technically off the rails.”

Open and respectful
Wendell Mendell, a space planner at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said that space agency teams are engaged in priorities and prioritizations, as well as being aware of “steering currents.”

“Quite frankly those considerations have a lot to do with engineering and budget, space access systems, and, ultimately, politics,” Mendell told the audience.

NASA teams are being very “open and respectful” of the universe of ideas and is open to the idea of dialog and interaction, Mendell said. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that as NASA's plans grow over the next few years there will be more opportunities for “a constructive interaction as opposed to a prescriptive interaction,” he said.