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More questions for NASA's manned spaceflight programs

Constellation, NASA, human spaceflight, astronautsThe White House yesterday announced that it will convene a 10-member independent panel to thoroughly review NASA's plans for human spaceflight. The announcement calls into doubt the agency's current cornerstones for manned missions, including the planned replacement for the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle and the stated goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020.

In a teleconference with reporters today, the panel's chair, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, gave few hints as to the future of manned spaceflight in the U.S., saying that his group's mission was simply to "take a fresh look and go where the facts are and basically call it the way we see it."

Augustine said that his panel, the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, was in the formation process and would ideally contain a balance of perspectives from the astronaut ranks as well as from industry, academia, and the engineering field. The group will have to work quickly to deliver its recommendations before August, when the administration is expected to announce a decision on how to proceed. NASA's current mission is directed toward restoring manned spaceflight capability, which will vanish along with the space shuttle next year, with a program called Constellation in 2015 and returning humans to the moon by 2020.

Probed on his committee's ability to advise on works already in progress, specifically the development of Constellation and the shuttle's retirement, Augustine did not rule anything out. "We are where we are," he said, noting that the shuttle's phaseout was already under way but that if his group saw compelling evidence for reviving it they would say so. As for Constellation, Augustine said that the money already sunk into the program "would not be a consideration for us." What would be a consideration, he added, is "where we stand today."

There have long been murmurings about the new administration changing directions with Constellation—former NASA chief Michael Griffin reportedly butted heads with President Obama's transition team over the suggestion that the program might be scaled back. And in documents from the campaign as well as in current budget proposals, Obama's staff has largely spoken about the space shuttle's replacement in general terms rather than referring to Constellation by name. In today's teleconference Augustine did the same, referring only to the "existing program."

But he maintained that this review was not simply Obama's attempt to put his stamp on a space program shaped by his predecessor—both Constellation and the 2020 timeline for returning to the moon stem from President Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration. "It's America's space program," Augustine said, "for which President Obama is currently responsible."

Artist's conception of Ares I crew-launch system, part of the Constellation program: NASA/MSFC

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