NASA's stated goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020, which received a tentative boost in February with an affirmation in President Barack Obama's budget request for fiscal year 2010, is reportedly now in danger.
According to a report in the Orlando Sentinel quoting unnamed NASA engineers and contractors, the space agency's timelines "are quietly being revised" in light of ongoing technical and budgetary problems. That revision, engineers told the newspaper, means the "2020 date to send humans back to the moon is in deepening trouble."
The agency has pushed back by two years its internal timeline for the scheduled moon launch of Ares V, a planned heavy-cargo carrier rocket, according to the Sentinel report. NASA had reportedly tagged the Ares V with a 2018 internal target—which builds in leeway for unforeseen problems—for a lunar launch, while announcing a 2020 date to the public. Grey Hautaluoma, a spokesperson for NASA, declined to comment on the Sentinel story. "We won't have any comment about our budgets and schedules until the 2010 budget is released next month," Hautaluoma said.
The Ares V rocket is designed to be unmanned but will play a role in planned astronaut missions to the moon by delivering the Earth departure stage and lunar lander to Earth orbit for rendezvous with a separately launched crewed spacecraft. With the internal timeline for its moon shot now reportedly set to 2020, there is little room for error if NASA is to meet its stated target.
One contractor told the Sentinel that an announcement of the delay by Kennedy Space Center officials "was not received with enthusiasm" by his group. Any delays will likely exacerbate job losses at Kennedy and elsewhere along Florida's "Space Coast," where the shuttle program has fueled the space industry for three decades. Without intervention from Washington, the space shuttle program will be shut for good down next year, and its replacement, the Ares I rocket and Orion crew capsule, will not be ready before 2015.
Artist's conception of Ares V: NASA/MSFC