In a 12-page summary report released on Tuesday offering a bleak assessment of plans to send astronauts back to the moon, the committee said the space agency would need the three billion dollars on top of its $18 billion-budget to meet its ambitious targets.
“Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations,” the committee wrote. “Such is the case today.”
As US president in 2004, George W. Bush launched a program dubbed Constellation with the goal of returning to the moon by 2020 and then establishing a lunar launchpad for a first trip to Mars.
But in an executive summary of its report, a White House commission named by Bush’s successor Barack Obama to review the US manned space program, said the current schedule was unachievable.
The committee recommended a “flexible path” that could explore the inner solar system with a “possible rendezvous with Mars’ moons or human lunar return by the mid to late 2020s.”
A full report was due to be released later this month.
Nasa offered various scenarios for a possible continuation of the program, but cautioned that “whatever space program is ultimately selected it must be matched with the resources needed for its execution.”
The report also urged the US space agency to enlist other countries in human space exploration as a possible way to finance its programs, as well as possible ventures launched with private companies.
“Actively engaging international partners in a manner adapted to today’s multi-polar world could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global resources and enhance the exploration enterprise,” it said.
Leading a “bold” effort to work with other countries in the space exploration effort could lead to “substantial benefits to foreign relations,” the report added.
Working with commercial partners would also lead to cost-cutting, the panel said, and could spur the US space effort with technology innovation.
Guaranteed contracts awarded by the federal government may also prompt a surge in private interest in the field.
Such a move “has the potential to stimulate a vigorous and competitive commercial space industry,” the report said, noting that the agency’s ability to focus on “cutting edge technologies and concepts.”
If appropriately funded, the committee recommended a program to “re-engage the minds” at US universities and in the private space industry.
Other questions addressed by the panel deal with the future of the soon-to-be-retired US space shuttles, which at present are due to be permanently grounded sometime in 2011, although the panel said that period could be extended to 2015.
The report also explores the future of the International Space Station and the feasibility of space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.