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Revision for space vision?

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NASA's step-by-step plan to return to the moon.

An independent panel was mostly in listening mode during today's first hearing on the future of America's spacefaring effort, but the fact that so many perspectives were heard suggests that the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee is really going to review a wide spectrum of options.

Those optionsŠincludeŠNASA's current Constellation Program, which calls for developing new types of rockets known as the Ares 1 and 5 to send humans back to the moon by the year 2020. But they also include adapting existing rockets such as the Delta 4 or Atlas 5, or some sort of "Frankenrocket" that marks the next stage of evolution for expendable launch vehicles. Or maybe the rockets that SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are building to send cargo up to the international space station. Or maybeŠa novel kind of shuttle-derived launch vehicle like the one envisionedŠby the mavericks behind the DIRECT spaceflight plan.

The panel's chairman, former aerospace executive Norman Augustine, told reporters after the hearing that he and his colleagues had a lot of homework to do between now and August, when they're due to file their report on what NASA should do after the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010 or so.

I was otherwise engaged today, focusing on the "Twitter Revolution" in Iran, but thankfully my friends on the space beat were paying close attention to the all-day hearingŠat the Carnegie Institution of Science in Washington. Here are some of the recaps:

  • Representatives from the Constellation Program as well asŠUnited Launch Alliance,Šthe Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture for unmanned launches, presented "dueling PowerPoint presentations" forŠnext-generation spaceflight, TheŠNew York Times' Kenneth Chang reported.ŠNASA's Steve Cook said there was "a stable plan" to launch the first manned Ares 1 mission by 2015 as scheduled, at an estimated cost of $35 billion. ULA's Michael Gass said a modified Delta 4 Heavy launcher could be ready by 2014, at a lower cost.
  • Irene Klotz's report for Reuters pointed out that although the ULA plan to replace the Ares 1 may be cheaper, the cost equation changes when the need for a heavier-lift Ares 5 (the rocket needed for moon missions) is factored in. She also quoted SpaceX's Elon Musk as saying that his company's Dragon capsule could be used to transport astronauts, with the addition of an escape system and other upgrades. "The whole purpose of SpaceX from the beginning has been human spaceflight. That's why I created it," Musk said.
  • Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who flew on the shuttle in 1986, complained that "NASA simply can't do the job it's been given - the president's goal of being on the moon by 2020," according to AFP's report. The solution? Nelson said the program needed more money than has been budgeted.
  • The Orlando Sentinel's Mark Matthews quoted Augustine as saying that his panel saw "a lot of different ideas" at today's hearing. "What we have to do is take each of them and stack them up side-by-side," Augustine said.
  • Twitterers seem to be everywhere, in Washington as well as Tehran: If you're somewhat space-savvy, you can get a good sense of the flow during the full day of hearings (including the DIRECT presentation)Šby bringing up Jeff Foust's Twitter feed, clicking it open for all updates from June 17, and reading from bottom to top. The Augustine panel's staff was tweeting as well.
  • I saved the best for last: Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport NewsŠprovides a full rundown of the afternoon sessions (read from below to above, blog-style).

Were you tuned in to today's hearings? Are you looking forward toŠtheŠpublic meetingsŠyet to come in Huntsville, at the Cape and back in D.C.? If so, you are truly a hard-core spaceŠjunkie and have earned the right (if not the obligation) toŠpost your comments below.

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