NASA remembers storied past, but looks to uncertain future (Flashback 2009)

December 30th, 2009 - 12:45 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama By Anne K. Walters
Cape Canaveral (Florida), Dec 30 (DPA) As the world marked the 40th anniversary of the first human on the moon this year, the future of the space programme that pioneering astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins helped found looks more uncertain than ever.

The Apollo astronauts are old men now. In July, it seemed like they recreated that golden age of space flight when they shook hands with US President Barack Obama, who praised them for their contributions.

But even as NASA announced unprecedented findings from scientific missions to the moon and Mars, the Obama administration conducted a review of its activities that could alter or scrub the space agency’s future plans.

NASA is winding down its nearly three-decade-old space shuttle programme and is set to retire the ageing space “trucks” in late 2010. Just five more flights remain, aimed at preparing the orbiting International Space Station (ISS) for life without the shuttle, the only craft large enough to transport major parts to the station.

“With the number of missions to go, it’s starting to hit home,” shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said after the November launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.

After the shuttle is retired, US astronauts will be forced to rely on Russian transport to the ISS, which is nearly complete and where scientists hope to turn the focus from construction to experimentation.

The ISS became even more international in 2009, as its permanent crew expanded for the first time to six with astronauts from all partner agencies, including US, European, Japanese, Russian and Canadian astronauts. Japan also began transporting goods to the

station on an unmanned spacecraft and completed the installation of its Kibo module.

The US plans to replace its space shuttle fleet with Orion spacecraft that are a bit of a throwback to the Apollo capsules used during the space race of the 1960s. The Orion is designed to eventually carry astronauts back to the moon and possibly even to

Mars.

But big plans require big spending - something politicians are reluctant to devote to scientific endeavours amidst economic difficulties back on Earth.

Obama ordered an independent review of the manned space programme this summer and the administration is still analysing the findings. The panel of aerospace experts and former astronauts concluded that the current financing of space exploration simply won’t allow NASA to reach its goals.

A review of all options found that no future manned exploration - whether to the moon, Mars or elsewhere - could be accomplished under the current spending plan of about $9 billion per year on manned space missions. At least $3 billion more per year is needed to take astronauts out of low-Earth orbit, where they have been confined since the 1970s.

“The US human spaceflight programme appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory,” the panel said in a summary of its findings. “It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.”

Indeed, Obama’s current budget requests would further decrease funding for the new programme, even as his advisors say he remains committed to space flight.

The commission also said NASA would not be ready to send astronauts aloft with the new Orion spacecraft until at least 2017, two years behind schedule.

That widens the gap between the retirement of the shuttle next year and implementation of the new vehicle, leaving astronauts totally dependent on Russian spacecraft to reach the ISS.

But until officials in Washington decide how to proceed, NASA has continued with Orion’s development. In October, it conducted the first test flight of its rocket, Ares I.

It also sent unmanned spacecraft to the moon to develop complete maps for future exploration and slammed a rocket into the surface in a search for water.

Findings by the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) experiment proved that water is even more abundant in the moon’s craters than expected, unlocking a new chapter in the history of lunar science, NASA officials said.

There was also further evidence of a wet past on Mars, where unmanned space rovers Spirit and Opportunity continued their work even as scientists struggled to free Spirit, which has been lodged for months in a patch of powdery Martian soil.

NASA also turned its Hubble Space Telescope back towards the stars after a shuttle mission set it back to work in a final servicing mission in May. It has since beamed back pictures of the early universe and far distant galaxies that may provide astronomers with important data about the origins of the universe.

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