Augustine Commission releases report on the role of the United States in manned exploration, calls for an extra $3 billion per year

Friday, October 23, 2009

The long-awaited report has just been released and can be viewed here. There are a lot of articles each summing up the report in their own way but for those interested it's probably better to just download it and read the executive summary yourself, which is only 10 pages long.

The main conclusion drawn by the report is that human spaceflight at current funding is unsustainable and needs at least an extra $3 billion per year above the FY 2010 level in order to make any of the scenarios presented possible. The two scenarios given as being the most possible are Moon First, and Flexible Path. Moon First doesn't necessarily mean landing people on the Moon from day 1, and would involve manned missions orbiting the Moon as well for example. Flexible Path is quite interesting and would involve a variety of possible destinations such as near-Earth asteroids, or even the moons of Mars. The idea of spending more than a year in space to explore the moons of Mars for a bit and then return is a terrible one, but a near-Earth asteroid is a very good idea. It's kind of a way to kick the can down the road so to speak, in starting out with an easy (no landing gear or return rocket required) but completely new destination and then hoping that things will work out in the following years. Usually this would be a bit of a pipe dream but since we're on the cusp of a new era in space exploration this just might work.

By a new era I mean:

- An era in which private companies are able to do their share in manned exploration in a way that has never been done before
- An era in which we know of tens to hundreds of Earth-like planets in other solar systems (the first one should be discovered any day now, and definitely no later than 2010)
- An era in which emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil are able to share a much larger part of the burden than now.

The report also mentions the contributions that other nations are able to make to space exploration, namely Canada, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the European Space Agency. Some countries that may be added to the list later on are Brazil, Mexico, perhaps even Turkey. South Africa also plans to have a space agency by next year.

The report says that Mars is humanity's ultimate destination in the inner Solar System, though not necessarily the best first destination. The word Ceres also does not appear once throughout the report so they obviously did not give it any thought either, and certainly not the idea of exploring any large asteroids in the asteroid belt such as 24 Themis that would make an excellent destination.

VASIMR is only mentioned once on page 103. The Google Lunar X Prize is also only mentioned once on page 92. All in all it's a pretty conservative report, dealing only with the main issues and barely touching on some of the more interesting possibilities in the next few years that could really change the way space works.

The report also recommends that the ISS be extended, as spending all this time constructing it only to deorbit it after five years of use would be a bit of a waste. This is true, but it doesn't really state exactly what the point of the ISS remaining in orbit would be in any great detail. Both sides (those that say the ISS needs to stay and those that say it's a waste) are right, but the only reason for the divergence of opinion is the lack of funding in the first place; if funding was sufficient from the start there would be no need to quibble about what to do with it.

Because that really is the only issue that really matters at the moment. NASA's budget has continually fallen as a percentage of the US GDP since the Apollo program and all the reports in the world on what to do won't correct this. Increase funding ($3 billion per year really is a pittance; continued operations in Iraq this year will cost $45.5 billion) and everything is solved.

Behold a very depressing chart.

Perhaps the US should pester countries like Canada that have escaped the financial crisis relatively unscathed to pitch in more than they are at the moment. Canada's budget for space exploration is woefully low, both in total ($373 million) and per capita ($11 per person per year compared to $58 per person per year for the US).


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