Sunday, August 24, 2008


It has been noted recently by many observers that NASA is now at a crossroads. The Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), which most prominently directs NASA’s efforts towards a return of astronauts to the Moon along with additional solar system exploration, has been in effect for several years. However, the implementation of the vision has suffered from low levels of funding, public enthusiasm, commercial participation, international participation, and tangible results. The interested science community has, on the whole, not been an enthusiastic supporter of the effort since robotic science budgets were reduced to respond to problems in the human spaceflight missions. This problem, however, has recently been reduced by the addition of several robotic lunar science missions to follow the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA’s Ares and Orion crew transportation system that is part of the Moon transportation architecture, and is also a system to send astronauts to and from the International Space Station, has suffered from technical problems, schedule delays, and budget shortfalls. NASA plans to retire the Space Shuttle by 2010, and the Ares/Orion system isn’t expected to be ready until 2015 or later, which leaves NASA in the uncomfortable position of relying on the Russian Soyuz to maintain the Space Station. Another danger is that the Ares/Orion transportation may take so long to develop, and use so much money to develop and operate, that NASA is never able to build the much larger Ares V rocket and associated lunar transportation systems. This plausible and extremely unpleasant scenario not only abandons the return to the Moon, but also leaves NASA with a transportation system that would likely compete with commercial U.S. space transportation systems for jobs like International Space Station supply and crew rotation.

Meanwhile, in the larger world, a new U.S. Presidential Administration will soon take power. This new Administration will want to take a careful look at NASA’s current plan and judge its progress. It will also want to evaluate NASA’s goals and approach to achieving those goals. This will be done in the context of numerous competing political priorities. This document suggests changes that should be made to NASA’s goals by the incoming Administration, and the mindset used to reach those goals that should allow NASA to contribute more to larger national priorities. Using these guidelines, NASA should, at the same time that it contributes more to national priorities, be able to make progress towards the heart of the Vision for Space Exploration: human and robotic exploration, using signification commercial and international participation, to achieve useful economic, security, and scientific advances.

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