White House commissions spaceflight-review panel

The most hotly probed issue at today’s press briefings on the Obama administration’s blueprint for federal spending on science were details about a tangential issue: the just-announced blue-ribbon panel to consider near-term options for getting astronauts into space once the shuttle mission ends.

Nine last shuttle flights are scheduled — three within the next five months, the rest by October 2010.

NASA is currently developing a successor to its shuttles for ferrying men and women into space, not only so that they can perform science aboard the International Space Station, but also so that they can tackle more challenging missions — including a return to the moon.

That successor program, known as Constellation, should be ready to launch people into space by 2015, according to Chris Scolese, NASA’s acting administrator. But that leaves open the question: With the International Space Station essentially complete — and ready to permanently host six scientists — how will U.S. astronauts reach that station between 2010 and 2015? Or even longer?

There’s always the chance that a shuttle successor won’t be available even by 2015, Scolese acknowledged. Any spacecraft with a totally new design will also employ engineering changes “that are pushing the frontiers.” So developing solid estimates of when a new craft will be ready can be a bit dicey (not, of course, his term).

Moreover, “You can expect that a new administration coming in wants to understand where we’re at [on this program] and is this the best way to go forward,” he said. Indeed, “that’s the purpose of the review,” which he and White House science adviser John Holdren formally announced this afternoon.

Of course, NASA is hoping that its Constellation program — currently costing some $250 million to $300 million a month to run — won’t be found wanting by the new review committee. With many years and several billion dollars already invested in Constellation, NASA must be praying it won’t be asked to go back to the drawing board.

“Clearly, if we’re on the wrong path, we should change,” Scolese told reporters. But “if you’re asking me do I think we’re on the wrong path, no I don’t. . . . however, we have to allow the review team to have the opportunity to look at all of the alternatives that are out there.”

Holdren said the new panel will be independent and asked to report back within about three months on its assessment of:
— how best to bridge that gap between the shuttle and the next generation of successor spacecraft, perhaps by sending astronauts into space on another country’s vehicles or commercial craft
— how best to ferry supplies to the space station
— the “desirability of extending the International Space Station’s life (to get the most out of the scientific opportunities that it presents),”
— and how to overcome “challenges . . . of establishing the capability to return to the moon, and, ultimately, other destinations further out.”

The panel will be chaired by Norm Augustine, an aerospace engineer who, Holdren pointed out, has “served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under both Republican and Democratic presidents.” Augustine has also served in the Department of Defense, headed the National Academy of Engineering and received oodles of awards and honorary degrees.

Except for one NASA panelist, the rest of this committee has not yet been selected, Holdren said. But more details could emerge as early as tomorrow when Augustine will meet the press to discuss his new charge.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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