Sunday, September 28, 2008

NASA Agency faces crucial decisions about its future

New missions envisioned, but resources limited
By MARK CARREAUCopyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 28, 2008, 9:18AM

Video and interactives courtesy The Associated Press, the White House and NASA.

After a fabled half century that featured the Apollo moon landings, spectacular images from the Hubble Space Telescope, and a space station, NASA faces a challenging new course as it commemorates its 50th anniversary this week.
And that direction, guided by a new president and Congress, takes different paths that could send the agency:•Reaching beyond the Apollo landings to establish a manned lunar base, a goal outlined by President Bush four years ago.
•Bypassing a moon base to press ahead with a mission to Mars, a planet that may have once nurtured some life forms.
•Extending the life of the space shuttle fleet past its 2010 currentretirement date. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have urged the White House and Congress to keep all options open for the shuttle.
•Settling into the international space station, the largest man-made object ever assembled in orbit, much longer than the Bush administration's planned departure date in 2015.
•Going out of existence, allowing the private sector to make the next strides in space exploration.Those are just some of the thoughts circulating through the minds of policymakers, scientists and former astronauts who admire the $17.3 billion-a-year space agency.
Better use for the money?The rest, and there are many, would prefer that NASA's funding instead help address the nation's growing economic ills.
"The situation looks dire to me," said Neal Lane , the White House science adviser to President Clinton who now assesses science and technology matters at Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
Forged in the Cold War, NASA opened its doors 50 years ago this Wednesday. The agency was organized to respond to the Soviet Union, which had grabbed a worrisome lead in space exploration. Within 11 years of NASA's creation, the Soviets had wilted in a sprint to the moon.
Shuttle nearing endNASA starts its second half century poised for new triumphs: Bush's lunar initiative, the first stop on a pathway to Mars and more distant destinations. But it faces significant obstacles.
The shuttle, after 123 missions punctuated by a pair of in-flight explosions that killed 14 astronauts, will lift off for the final time in late 2010 unless the next president and Congress agree on an extension.
The fate of an underfunded replacement, the Orion moonship and a pair of Ares rocket launchers, rests with the new president and Congress as well.
At best, NASA faces a five-year gap between the last shuttle mission and the inaugural launching of the next spaceship.
During the hiatus, which some experts believe is likely to grow, NASA planned to buy seats on Russian vessels flying to the station. But many lawmakers seem hesitant to approve legislation enabling the payments, given Russia's recent invasion of neighboring Georgia.
So, the choices NASA faces include going to the next president and Congress for an additional $3 billion a year to keep the shuttle flying, cutting back on popular, unmanned science missions or draining funds from the development of the new spaceship.
Lane and others believe NASA's future political footing depends on more than human spaceflight.
And they believe it should build on the global partnerships that NASA established over the last 25 years with Europe, Japan, Canada and Russia to construct the space station.
"Some people are really excited about human spaceflight and some of them about science," said Lane, who supports Bush's lunar initiative but questions its urgency. "Balance is important. If (NASA) becomes a go-back-to-the-moon program, then you really have to have a good answer as to why, and that question has not been answered."
President Bush charted NASA on a course back to the moon in response to those who investigated the Columbia tragedy and concluded the agency lacked the goals worthy of the expense and risk of spaceflight.
His directive called on NASA to ground the shuttle and return to the moon by 2020. By retiring the shuttle and shuttering the space station five years later, NASA would free funds for Constellation, the program for the Orion crew ship, the Ares I and V launchers and a lunar lander.
Some see urgency in the lunar project. It's an echo of the Cold War, they believe, but this time their attention is focused on China's unsettling rise as a potential rival to the U.S. in military and space power.
Chinese gearing upLast week, the formative Chinese space program planned to launch its third orbital mission in five years. The flight was expected to include the country's first spacewalk.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin has warned Congress that China could reach the moon ahead of an America unsure of its future course.
Beijing is between five and 20 years from reaching the moon with astronauts, according to James Lewis, who tracks China's space efforts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"We don't want to underestimate the political effect of being a leader in space," Lewis said. "It's a symbol of America's power."
Others view NASA's plans to trump a lunar landing by staffing a permanent moon base as more than a symbolic projection of influence.
"We go back to the moon for a very different reason than we did before. When we went to the moon in the 1960s, it was primarily to show we could do it before the Russians did it," said Paul Spudis, a lunar scientist who served on the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond, an advisory panel formed in 2004 to advise the White House on space exploration.
"Fundamentally, the new mission is different," he said. "This time, it's to learn how to live and work on another world, how to extract resources."
Under the Bush initiative, NASA would establish a base near the moon's south or north pole. The sites under study rest on the rims of ancient impact craters, places where the sunlight is near constant and close to ice deposits left by comets that slammed into the moon.
Far from the Apollo landing sites of the early '70s, a polar base would enable a new generation of explorers to use some of the electricity generated by sunlight to convert ice into its chemical components, oxygen and hydrogen, as well as into drinking water.
Oxygen would fortify the breathing air, and oxygen and hydrogen could be used to fuel a transcontinental railroad between Earth and the moon.
"New missions will tell us if this is possible or not. If it is, it will fundamentally alter the calculus of spaceflight," Spudis said. "Right now, everything that we take into space, we have to lift up from the surface of the Earth. But we know there are materials and energy in space, not just on the moon, but on asteroids and other bodies. The question is, can you use what you find in space to create a new spacefaring capability? That is what we are trying to do."
But plans for a lunar base threaten to bog down achieving the more compelling goal of exploring Mars, which shares so many similarities with Earth it could be settled by humans, according to other experts.
Earlier this year, a gathering of space experts at Stanford University vowed to press the next president to reassess the Bush initiative, convinced that the expense of a moon base will siphon the resources for a more inspiring mission to Mars.
Mars mission beckons"Push will come to shove. The country is not awash in surplus money," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, one of those who organized the invitation-only Stanford gathering of academics, aerospace executives and former astronauts.
"It's Mars that pulls us as a species to space," he said, "to wonder about the origin and evolution of life in the universe, whether we can live on other worlds.
"Mars is the only place we can reach where those questions get addressed."
After more than a decade at NASA that included participation in the Apollo 9 mission, former astronaut Rusty Schweickart founded the Association of Space Explorers, a professional group that counts 320 space travelers from more than 30 countries. He now chairs the association's Near Earth Objects Committee, a panel working with the United Nations to address the global threat posed by future asteroid impacts.
It's a threat NASA or some other federal agency should address, according to Schweickart. The task would include identifying the asteroids that pose a collision threat and developing robotic spacecraft that intercept and alter their course.
"We certainly need a space program as much as we ever did. But what you do with it is a different issue," Schweickart said.
"NASA to some extent has acted as if it's in an ivory tower," he said. "It does very interesting and imaginative things. But it's been largely independent of what anybody sees as a public need."

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