Spaceflight Panel Wants Open Minds

By Frank Morring, Jr.

BETHESDA, Md. - Membership in the White House/NASA panel being set up to give the Obama administration a quick review of the U.S. human spaceflight program will be announced as early as May 27, and the group of 10 aerospace experts should clear all the regulatory wickets to begin work in about two weeks, according to Norman Augustine, the retired Lockheed Martin CEO who will chair the group.

Augustine, who took the job after discussing it with officials of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, and key members of Congress, said in an interview May 26 that the panel will consist of experts who are "fully open-minded on the subjects.

"My final desire, or stipulation, was no zealots," he told Aviation Week. "By zealot I mean somebody who's made up their mind and is just interested in selling their position, because that's not our role. Our role is to listen and weigh."

The group will have to hit the ground running to meet its end-of-August deadline, which was set so any changes that grow out of its work can be reflected in NASA's budget. The panel's broad charter, as set by White House Science Adviser John Holdren, will be "to identify and characterize a range of options that spans the reasonable possibilities for continuation of U.S. human space flight activities beyond retirement of the space shuttle."

Augustine previously chaired the production of a 1990 report on the future of the U.S. space program. Although the so-called Augustine Commission had a broader portfolio than the new human-spaceflight review, its relevant findings corresponded in broad terms with the existing NASA program of returning to the moon with a new heavy-lift rocket - the Ares V - as a stepping-stone to the human exploration of Mars.

That heavy-lifter is likely to be a centerpiece of the new Augustine panel's work, since the Obama administration's fiscal 2010 NASA budget request calls for a cut of $3.1 billion in 2011-2013, which NASA had planned to spend on ramping up Ares V development and work on the planned Altair lunar lander. NASA already has put a $30 million line item for Ares V on hold until Augustine reports, and the White House was clear that it expects the panel to stay within the bounds of the current NASA spending profile.

"We've been given the first five years, and we may be given the next five years, and we will come up with some options that fit that for sure," Augustine said. "And if it turns out there are options that use a different profile, or more money or less money or whatever, that look particularly promising, I don't think we would hesitate to point that out."

Artist's concept of Ares V: NASA

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