The NASA Buzz: Shuttle Extension, Abandoning the Moon, and What About an Administrator?

The blogosphere and Twitterverse has been buzzing the past couple of days with NASA what-ifs and possibilities. But that usually happens whenever there are Congressional hearings about our favorite space agency. Here’s the run-down of what is really happening: No extra money has been given to extend the shuttle program as of yet but it is a possibility. NASA is not going to abandon going to the Moon. And no, President Obama hasn’t named a new NASA administrator yet. Want the details?

House and Senate leaders have agreed to authorize $2.5 billion to keep the U.S. space shuttle fleet flying through 2011. While no money has actually been appropriated for that yet, the extension would happen only if necessary to complete currently planned missions to the international space station. If another flight were added to the shuttle manifest, it’s possible the controversial Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer instrument would be brought to the station. AMS was mothballed after the Columbia accident in 2003 as a cost cutting move, but the because of the international scientific community’s outcry about cutting the one really exciting science experiment to fly on the space station (that was mostly paid for by other countries) last year Congress told NASA to reconsider. They are supposed to make a decision today.

Space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
Space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA

But the shuttle retirement is controversial from a political point of view because it affects thousands of aerospace industry jobs, not only in Florida, but nationwide. Retiring the shuttle in 2010 would also give a five year gap (at least) until the Orion crew vehicle is ready to fly, making the US dependant on Russia for bringing humans and supplies to the ISS. This week House and Senate budget conferees agreed on “the strategic importance of uninterrupted human access to space” and said the extra $2.5 billion is provided “in anticipation that the funding is needed” to safely “complete the construction and equipping” of the space station.

But some NASA officials and contractors worry that giving more funding to the shuttle program would hamper the efforts for the Constellation program, funneling money away from the new rocket that will help return humans to the moon, hopefully by 2020. The Constellation program has already begun shifting gears and figuring out how to make flying by 2015 actually work. Ian reported last week that the Orion crew size would likely be decreased from six to four, which also makes the spacecraft lighter. One issue engineers have been facing has been excess weight. Other reports look like this is likely a done deal.

Speaking of returning to the Moon, Wednesday’s appropriation hearings created some buzz when Chris Scolese, the agency’s acting administrator, said he anticipates changes. Some reports said Scolese gave vague answers. Others had NASA abandoning the a base on the Moon, but that is likely an exaggeration.

Moon base. Credit: NASA
Moon base. Credit: NASA

“I just can’t tell you what those changes would be,” Scolese told members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. “We’re still looking at options for what do we mean by the moon. Do we mean a colony on the moon? That’s clearly very expensive. Are we looking at something along the lines of what we did with Apollo?” he said.

But that correlates completely with legislation passed in October, 2008 that says:

“As NASA works toward the establishment of a lunar outpost, NASA shall make no plans that would require a lunar outpost to be occupied to maintain its viability. Any such outpost shall be operable as a human-tended facility capable of remote or autonomous operation for extended periods.”

Scolese also pointed out that the budget overview released earlier this year by President Obama clearly backs the previous administration’s goal of sending astronauts to the moon by 2020, a decade after the scheduled retirement of the shuttle fleet.

“It will probably be less than an outpost on the moon, but where it fits between sorties — single trips to the moon to various parts — and an outpost is really going to be dependent on the studies that we’re going to be doing,” he said.

What will really end up happening on the Moon is likely to change over time, just as the Constellation program already appears to be changing.

And finally, the current administration has yet to name a new NASA administrator. One person whose name had been floating around recently, General Lester Lyles, withdrew himself from consideration Wednesday. Another name that has surfaced is Lori Garver, former NASA associate administrator who headed Obama’s space transition team.

Sources: Florida Today, Lunar Network Blog, MSNBC, Wall Street Journal

19 Replies to “The NASA Buzz: Shuttle Extension, Abandoning the Moon, and What About an Administrator?”

  1. Its a scary time for space fans.

    No moon base likely means no chance of branching constellation into a Mars program.
    Without surface experience that lasts more than a few days, its near impossible to argue for a mission that would involve months of ground work on mars.

    Keeping the shuttle in its present form is just begging for the government to get lazy and postpone constellation… but not having a launch system at all is even scarier.

    With our commitment to spaceflight being more political than anything, I fear the 5 year gap could be spun into the new normal as we suffice our exploration needs by renting seats with Russia and China.

    I’d pray for the COTS-D program to be accelerated… but thats a long shot.

  2. With respect, Nancy, I think that’s far too optimistic and generous an assessment. NASA might not be “abandoning” the Moon, but it’s certainly backing away from it in a big way, and the Scolese comments are, frankly, spin. The best we can probably hope for now is a couple of small habs bolted together in one place – maybe the rim of Shackleton – where experiments are left to run automatically, with occasional visits from small astronaut crews to bring the milk in and collect the post. Other expeditions might be to places of scientific interest, but the first steps towards settling the Moon? Forget it.

    Maybe NASA has finally cottoned on to the fact that their attempts to sell the Return to The Moon to the public have failed miserably. I mean, let’s be honest, there’s no real interest in it outside of our own pro-space corcles, is there? The very real feeling “out there” is “Why repeat Apollo? We’ve already done that…” I’m one of NASA’s hugest and most faithful fans, and will stick my head above the trench to support them every chance I get, but the fact is they have done a pathetic job at selling the Return to The Moon to the taxpayers who would be asked to fund it, and even now, with hardware taking shape, basically very few people who aren’t “into” space like us give a monkey’s about the Moon program. It hasn’t inspired them, it hasn’t excited them, it hasn’t moved them.

    A manned Mars program would inspire people, I think, but would NASA’s political masters be willing to sign up for something that wouldn’t happen for another generation? Probably not. The fact that Obama picked out a dog before he selected a NASA Administrator shows just how important an issue space is in the White House, I fear. The manned exploration side of NASA is in serious, serious trouble, I fear.

    So, no, not abandoning the Moon… not totally… but the next best/worst thing. But this will have set hands rubbing with glee in other parts of the world. When LRO goes into lunar orbit, it might as well drop a white flag onto the surface with “Here you go, it’s all yours…” written on it in Chinese.


  3. i agree with mars_stu that Nasa failed to ignite interest in public opinion.
    it’s a quite sad situation…
    but let’s look on the bright sight of things
    if the chinese really make it to the moon , that should scare someone at the whitehouse,
    and about the fans , well , since web2.0 many astronomy blogs were born , so maybe time given , we ( the fans ) could spred this enthusiasm
    and finaly , maybe if Obama said something like : ” i think this nation should dedicate it’s self , on landing a man on mars , befoure the decade is over… ”
    eheh… happy dreaming..

  4. I really hope that the shuttle does continue until there is a replacement. I can not imagine any Russian administration not utilizing the lack of a US launch capability as a political lever on an unrelated issue. Sorry to be paranoid, but it seems to me we have access to a fine boat in orbit and are demolishing our own pier so we can pay to use someone else’s.

    On the Moon to engage the public…. Hmmm.. Perhaps after the LRO images are fed into “Google Moon” we could dump about 1000 remote control vehicles and rent them out.

  5. I would like to see the launch vehicles from the Constellation program developed. Think of the telescopes and instrumentation we could loft! Imagine an 8m scope out at the L1 point! Imagine radioscopes with a baseline across the Lagrange points. The opportunities for real science are rich.

    As for the return to moon stuff, I am noncommittal. Without clear scientific missions to put astronauts on the moon, such as putting astronomical or particle physics facilities on the moon, the whole business is silly. A lunar base is also a lunar version of the current space station, a more expensive boondoggle. Without a clear scientific purpose for putting astronauts on the moon there is little reason for this. Let the Chinese waste their national resources putting Taikonauts up there and salute their nation’s flag.

    I think the whole notion that humanity is going to move off into space is highly problematic. In my younger years, particular in highschool, I thought that progress in the future would be measured by our colonization of space. Yet with college, grad school, postdoc etc, the whole dream for me has largely faded into Sci-Fi. Soace is simply lethal, and living in space means being trapped in cans.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  6. Right now the Obama white house is being inundated with crisis. As the saying goes ‘No one cares about the depth of the swamp when one is up to one’s neck in alligators’. Forty years ago, after appollo 11 and 13 – interest in the moon shots quickly diminished. I was really fascinated by the later missions that began some serious ‘geology’ and moonbuggy exploration. Joe sixpack wasn’t and the program terminated. Today there is infinitely more science being done – Hubble, Space based observatories to cover every phase of the spectrum from here to wazoo. ground based observatories/receivers of unprecedented power. Manned exploration is proceeding swiftly. The INTERNATIONAL Space Station is nearing completion and going to six person. Many countries have accelerating manned/unmanned space programs. Cosmology is literally a gamma-ray explosion of NEW information coming in at such a rapid pace that scientists around the world are unable to keep up with new data and theories. We are in space. We have started to explore. We will take our scientific instruments, our habitats, and yes – our military and communication equipment into the solar system. The journey has begun. We ARE on our way.

    Me? I’m sitting back and enjoying every minute of it. So chill out and enjoy. NASA is going away.

  7. Lawrence B. Crowell, imo, has nailed it.
    There are so many exciting robotic missions on their way, returning amazing results, that a “moon base” would look quite insignificant, and very, VERY costly by comparison.

    It will make _some_ sense for the Chinese, Indians, and others who are going to join the ranks of space exploring nations, and I wouldn’t exactly call it a waste of their national resources. I can relate to it as a learning experience for them, and, unlike in the days of Apollo, not having a cold war competition going on, there is no need for them to rush and skimp on safety.

    In no way would I be miffed if “returning to the moon” was scrapped, if it would help to advance other (robotic) projects, which seem to return consistently mind-expanding results. In an ideal world, imo, NASA would even go one step beyond, and support the Chinese and Indian space agencies by sharing experience and some technology. It’s about time space exploration moved away from the (highly uneconomical) National Pride Domain.

  8. The problem with robotic missions is you can only accomplish so much. They don’t expand the realm of mankind, they simply survey the borders. And if you don’t like what they see you simply say the darn things malfunctioned.
    It’s like taking a vacation through the eyes of a predator drone… Nice, but wanting.

    Joe sixpack had slot of things to be distracted with in the Apollo era. I’d argue that if it were not for the palpable meaning of moon landings, we wouldn’t have had a space program at all.

    If you want to ignight the publics passion again, space programs have to move beyond Hubble images and the occasional iss upgrade.
    Constellation has to be advertised as a “moon then mars” program, and we have to think about sustained spaceflight rather than just a single goal. We have to start talking big again.

    If we can’t show progress, all space missions become vulnerable.

  9. Maxwell, I don’t believe manned missions really can do much to “expand the realm of mankind”. Until a more cost effective (non-rocket) way of launching people and materials can become feasible, they can only “survey the borders”, just like robotic missions, but at a much higher cost, and not for extended lengths of time.
    I really do believe that given the current stage of technology, robotic missions are the best option.

    Seeing a manned Mars landing within my lifetime (I’m 58) would be very cool, and if it can be done without skimping on other important research concerning our understanding of Nature and the Cosmos, by all means, go for it. It’ll be a great sense of achievement for everybody involved, and that’s important, too. My hope is that some kind of more economical access to space (like the Elevator) may be feasible by then.
    But I really believe that building a moon base would be best moved near the bottom of the list of priorities – for NASA, anyway…. and that science will be best served with tough and reliable robots – something NASA seems to be doing really well, probably their greatest strength!

  10. Feenix, Studying stars and planets is nice but they will still be there long after mankind is gone. Unless we find ways to sustain ourselves (on and beyond earth) all this data will be for naught.

    The public doesn’t just want to see space photos, they want to gain access.
    Short of making that the new goal of NASA the government can only explore viable destinations and technologies, then hope business follows.

    The greater importance of the moon base in the short term was that it signalled a distinct difference between Constellation and Apollo.
    We were moving beyond earth to stay, not just planting another flag.

  11. One of my favorite sayings is: “He or she who goes there, knows there.”

    I think we should all petition the White House and ask the current adminstration to move forward concerning NASA and space exploration. After all is said and done, one lousy asteroid or comet could change the whole equation permanently. WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?

    Serendipitous discoveries aside, there’s much to learn, partnerships to be forged, and questions to be answered by deciding to go to the moon. MY FEELING is that if we don’t do it now, then it may never-ever happen…. and THAT’s a long time!

  12. I am not dead set again “men in space.” Yet I do think that if astronauts are going to be sent to the moon there needs to be a clear reason given for that. Putting a base on the moon so Americans with our flag can sit there is ridiculous. Maybe they are needed if complex facilities are to be deployed there. This sounds like a “send and return” situation instead of a base.

    Solar power satellites are maybe another reason to keep humans in the space loop as well. This assume the idea of lofting our power grid to geo-synch really can work and astronauts are needed for deployment and maintenance.

    Without a clear set of missions and requirements for men in space the RTM idea is really a collossal waste. Also, if we want to find life on Mars, or find evidence of pre-biotic chemistry there, the last thing you want to send are bacterial ridden humans there to contaminate the place.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  13. I also agree with Lawrence. There is a lack of direction on what we intend to do on the moon.
    But I would argue that the same case exists for Mars. (microbiotic life is just not going to fire the imagination of the populace)

    To that end I would propose that these missions have a commercial purpose. The moon has raw materials that are increasingly in short supply on earth. Secondly if we are to fire the imaginations of the people, then lets put a hotel on the moon.

    And give everyone the ultimate opportunity to holiday there. Science alone will not sell votes.


  14. Finding life on Mars, or evidence of prebiotic chemistry in the early stage of martian evolution, might set off a bit of a firestorm. Scientifically life on Mars would lead to the question of whether it is indigenous to Mars or imported from Earth by terrestrial fragments from asteroid impacts. Socially it might have the effect of extending the Copernican principle to planetary biology. This will impact the religious community a bit, I might imagine.

    Vacations on the Moon? That will not happen any day really soon. Space tourism, something I regard as a nutty subsidy for the most wealthy, is proposed to be suborbital rides at a ticket cost of $100,000.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  15. I agree with Damian in that I think NASA should try to focus on commercializing space somehow.
    I really can’t see how public interest and more importantly financial support will come (especially during these difficult times) purely from the support of science.

  16. The discovery of life, outside our bioshpere, would have tremendous ramifications. Philosophically speaking. However, the altruism of the populace towards such higher concepts is at best marginal.

    The most important thing science could do at this stage is turn a profit from going to space. This idea of indefinite (state) funding towards a purely scientific ideal in space is flawed. If we are searching for a new focus then let it be one based on generating a (space economy) that funds the science.

    The Moon mission should begin by robotic mining Rovers that can sweep the Regolith and separate the elements. (stockpiling them for future use) If we were smart the rovers would mine a site while prepping it for a future base. (microvwave roads and prep the ground for future structures. (i.e. dig tunnels)

    Regolith contains all the elements we need for Water and Oxygen, as well as aluminum, magnesium and a whole host of rare metals.

    I remember seeing feasibility studies for such a device, (I think it was nasa) basically it involves heating the regolith to break it down to constituent elements.

    As for space tourism, I think its the best idea ever,
    Sure it will be expensive at first, but in time that will change, the important part is perhaps not that I will go to space, but knowing that I could if I had the money. And Perhaps I would be tempted to invest in the idea so my kids could one day go there.


  17. If space is to have additional applications I would recommend that it is to be a massless commodity. Solar power satellites are maybe the next step. Mining in space is not going to happen soon. We might ponder that a 365 foot tall 6 million pound machine was sent to the moon to return with about 100 kg of lunar rocks. The resource exchange situation is clearly negative.

    The problem with space is that there is nothing out there for us. There is nothing which can facilitate us aqueous bags of proteins, lipids and saccharides. Comparisons with the ocean voyages and subsequent colonization is off the mark. These were conducted in order to facilitate trade. This was particularly after the Sultan Sulyeman II of the Ottoman empire choked off the trade routes to the east. These voyages were done to open trade routes to regions where people already lived.

    I frankly have a dim view of space tourism. This would be a huge subsidy to NASA to facilitate excursions which could only be conducted by the most wealthy.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

Comments are closed.