Presidential panel concludes NASA can't afford return to moon by 2020
WASHINGTON — NASA's Constellation program, conceived four years ago to return Americans to the moon by 2020, can't afford to do that — and the agency's budget won't allow humans to explore beyond the international space station for two decades, a presidential panel has concluded.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's annual budget of about $18 billion will pay to keep astronauts flying — albeit aboard Russian rockets — to the space station through 2020, the panel said Wednesday.
But that would leave no money for the moon, Mars or exploring other parts of the solar system for at least two decades.
"We haven't found a scenario that includes exploration that's viable," said former astronaut Sally Ride, one of 10 committee members who have until Aug. 31 to present President Barack Obama with future options for NASA.
Panel chairman Norm Augustine, the retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, said NASA is the victim of both budget cuts and technical problems with its Constellation program of new rockets and capsules that are supposed to return humans to the moon.
"The money available has declined considerably since the program began," he said. "On the other hand, the Constellation program has proven to be more difficult than it was thought to be."
Augustine added, "It will be difficult with the current budget to do anything that's terribly inspiring in the human spaceflight area. On the other hand, there are things you can do to prepare. ... It just won't come as soon."
The panel said it would take at least $3 billion more per year for NASA to have a "reasonable chance" of getting to the moon or elsewhere in the solar system before 2030.
And while committee members seemed to support more money, it's not clear where, in a time of trillion-dollar-plus federal deficits, the cash would come from.
The panel's pessimistic assessment of NASA's manned-space future contradicts years of assertions by the agency that despite budget cuts totaling about $30 billion over the next decade, its moon-landing program was on track and within budget.