Don't Betray the Dream

If America returns to the moon, it will cost far more and take longer than was forecast, according to the committee that President Obama established to review the program.

The “Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee” was set up in June to reevaluate space exploration objectives, including those announced by former President George W. Bush in 2004. In an echo of President Kennedy’s promise in the 1960s to land a person on the moon and return him safely within that decade, Bush pledged that the United States would:

*** return to the moon between 2015 and 2020 and establish a base there,

*** phase out the Space Shuttle by 2010, after it helped complete the International Space Station,

*** develop a Crew Exploration Vehicle to take astronauts to the moon by 2008 and fly it with a crew by 2010.

Besides its scientific value, the lunar station was to be a step toward an eventual Mars landing and the exploration of other parts of the solar system. To kick off the program, NASA was to shift $11 billion in existing funding to the initiative over the following five years, and Bush was to ask Congress for another $1 billion for the same period. Estimates were that from the 2010 through the 2020 fiscal year, the project would cost $99 billion.

But the reviewers are throwing cold water on the plan as originally envisioned. Officials told an audience during a public meeting Aug. 12 in Washington, D.C., that the proposed funding would not allow NASA to meet the timetable. Committee member Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space and is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, delivered a sobering “Scenario Affordability Analysis” on behalf of herself and other experts on the topic.

According to notes for her briefing, posted online, to meet the timetable of a landing by October 2021, the cost would be $149 billion from the 2010 through the 2020 budget years. That is $50 billion over the original projection, more than half again more expensive.

Another scenario, in which humans return to the moon by 2025, would cost $129 billion for Fiscal Years 2010-2020 (with astronauts still five years away from boots on lunar soil), and $275 billion for ’10 through ’30.

Money-saving changes that NASA is considering include using commercial crews for some flights; ending shuttle flights in 2011 or 2015 instead of next year, and retiring the ISS in 2020. Russian Soyuz rockets could service the station after the shuttles are grounded.

Ride’s notes comment that the budget projected earlier is “extremely limiting.” No programs that include human exploration are viable under that plan, they add.

Another idea called “Mars Direct,” in which the lunar landings would be skipped and America would head to Mars first, would have “considerably higher cost than other scenarios,” the notes say.

According to the briefing, “Exploration doesn’t appear viable under the FY10 budget and run-out.”

At a time when the debate over the cost of health care has reached the flash point, it’s hard to imagine Congress beefing up the space exploration budget. It is more likely to slash NASA’s funding. And we haven’t heard strong words of support for advanced space exploration from President Obama.

This is highly disturbing. Americans belong in space. Since 1961 we have ventured there at huge risk, the deaths of brave men and women, and great expense. We did it because it was worth doing. It still is. To stall out now and concede leadership to others would be a terrible betrayal.

As Jay Eads, a Sandy resident and member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, comments, “I still firmly believe that for the United States to remain strong in the world and to be a light to other nations, we must lead the way in science.”

Not having Americans explore space beyond low-Earth orbit, he adds, would mean missing out on learning certain facts on our own. It would be a signal that our civilization is stagnating or moving backwards, “not forward in gaining of new knowledge.

“I really feel that Dr. Carl Sagan’s words are very important right now. He said once, ‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.’ The question is, are we willing to be the ones to discover it or will we leave it to others?”

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.