WASHINGTON — NASA doesn’t have nearly enough money to meet its goal of putting astronauts back on the moon by 2020 — and it might be the wrong place to go, anyway. That’s one of the harsh messages emerging from a sweeping review of NASA’s human space flight program.
The Human Space Flight Plans Committee, appointed by President Barack Obama and headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, has been trying to stitch together some kind of plausible strategy for America’s manned space program. The panel has struggled to find options that stay under the current budget and include missions worthy of the cost and effort.
The committee members will meet with administration officials today and will report that there’s no realistic way to get Americans back on the moon by the target date of 2020, which has been the agency’s goal since President George W. Bush signed off on the “Vision for Space Exploration” in 2004. Landing on the moon by 2020 would require such drastic budgetary maneuvers as de-orbiting the international space station — crashing it into the South Pacific — in 2016.
The final list of options being explored by the Augustine group will include some variation of a lunar base down the road. But the committee is most animated by what it calls the “Deep Space” option, a strategy that emphasizes getting astronauts far beyond Low Earth Orbit but not necessarily plunking them down on alien worlds.
Instead, the “Deep Space” strategy would send them to near-Earth asteroids and to gravitationally significant points in space, known as Lagrange points, that are beyond the Earth’s protective magnetosphere. Astronauts might even go all the way to Phobos, a tiny moon of Mars, where the spaceship wouldn’t land so much as rendezvous, in the same way that a spacecraft docks at the international space station.
The Earth’s moon would be a possible “off-ramp” of such a strategy but not a central target for exploration. Putting astronauts on the surface of Mars, and then returning them to Earth, would be prohibitively expensive, according to an analysis by the committee, which will send its report to the president by the end of this month.