The Review of Human Space Flight Plans
(aka. the Augustine Report) was released today. A summary of their findings after a read of the executive summary and conclusions:
-The current shuttle manifest seems to require flights until 2nd quarter of 2011 and NASA should budget accordingly.
-US Support and Funding for the International Space Station (ISS) currently only goes through 2015. The committee found there to be significant value in extending this until at least 2020
-Beyond 2011 the committee notes that there are alternatives to servicing the ISS in place (which is, minus a servicing mission or so, what the shuttle is primarily used for). They suggested the shuttle could be flown beyond 2011 at a minimal safe-flight rate if a through safety/reliability review and recertificattion was done was done.
-The Constellation class manned space vehicle (Aries I/Orion) will not be ready until at least 2015 according to the current schedule and the committee believes after an independent assessment of this schedule there will be a delay of at least 2 years. This will leave a gap of 7 years in US ability to send men into space without extending the shuttle life or utilizing foreign vehicles.
-The committee believes the current Constellation designs will accomplish the variety of manned missions NASA has been called on to do but is very concerned with the reoccurring costs for each launch of the vehicles.
-This requires a bit of reading between the lines - it appears the committee is not beholden or taken with the Constellation designs and approach. They put out the idea that the private/commercial sector could provide vehicles capable of providing manned space flight and that ultimately this may be a cheaper and better route. They do not say that the private/commercial route is the way to go - just that it is a possible avenue to choose in developing new manned vehicles.
-The committee endorses a path of manned exploration staring with a return to the moon or to near earth objects (Flexible Path) before any attempt to explore Mars.
-Human exploration beyond low earth orbit is not viable with the FY2010 funding envelope. To do meaningful exploration in a reasonable time frame you must increase the envelope by 3 billion dollars by 2014 and then grow it at inflation (2.4%) beyond that point.
I suppose at this point I should throw a disclaimer -- Ob-Disclaimer:
I am a contractor scientist who works for NASA but I have almost nothing to do with the manned side of things. I deal with unmanned scientific instruments. I also don't shape or have any more say in NASA than anyone reading this.
The committee was given a fairly difficult task to not say 'this is the best course for manned space exploration' but rather to assess the state of our current program and lay out options for viable future paths. What they've basically said is unless you pour in billions more into manned space your not going to get a viable exploration program.
We're at one of those interesting moments where decisions need to be made and courses plotted. I'm interested in what others think of this - in particular I'm interested in what do you the taxpayer who funds NASA think the agency should do and focus on. Is manned space worth the cost? Should we scuttle the government manned space program now and focus on unmanned exploration and study? What should the goals of NASA be?