Lawmakers slam experts' report on US human space flight

A group of US lawmakers on Tuesday slammed a report by aerospace experts tasked to review NASA's human space flight program that proposed ditching plans to return to the Moon.

The landing gear has deployed as the space shuttle Discovery lands at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Friday, Sept. 11, 2009

"When it was announced that you were going to be leading an independent review of the human space flight program, I thought you were going to take a hard, cold, sobering look at the Constellation program," Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords told Norman Augustine, head of the review panel that bears his name.

The Arizona Congresswoman said she had expected the group to "tell us exactly what we need to do here in Congress with our budget in order to maximize the chances of success."

Former president George W. Bush launched in 2004 the Constellation program, which aimed to return to the Moon by 2020 and then establish a lunar launchpad for a first trip to Mars.

"Instead of focusing on how to strengthen the exploration program on which we've spent so much time -- four years -- and billions of dollars, we have a glancing attention to Constellation," said Giffords, who chairs of the House Science and Technology Committee.

"Instead, the bulk of the time is spent crafting alternative options."

The alternatives proposed in the report were "almost like cartoons, lacking detailed costs, schedule, technical, safety, other specifics," she said.

Augustine, a former president of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin who also served as undersecretary of the US Army, denied writing off Constellation.

On the contrary, he said, the summary report outlined several proposals -- including Constellation -- for keeping the United States in space.

The summary report, which was submitted to Congress last week, warned that NASA was hugely underfunded and on an "unsustainable trajectory."

"Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans," said the Augustine Commission in its summary.

"Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations. Such is the case today."

Giffords and other lawmakers, including Donna Edwards of Maryland, said legislators didn't need a report to tell them NASA was in financial straits.

If NASA's dire funding situation continues, the United States would see a gap of at least seven years in human space flight -- the longest since the US human space program began -- starting in 2011, when the space shuttle program is retired, the report said.

The shuttle fleet, which has flown since 1981, has suffered two major disasters: the 1986 Challenger explosion and the 2003 in-flight Columbia breakup, which claimed the lives of 14 astronauts.

Bush decided to end shuttle flights, amid concerns about the aging fleet.

The Augustine Commission is due to testify Wednesday before a Senate committee.

The panel's full report on US human space flight, which was commissioned by President Barack Obama early this year, is due out at the end of the month.

Source: AFP

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