WASHINGTON, Sept 8, 2009 (AFP) - NASA's plans to send a man to the moon and beyond have been derailed by a lack of funds, and the US human space program "appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory," a presidential panel said Tuesday.
In a 12-page summary report offering a bleak assessment of plans to send astronauts back to the moon, the committee said that a robust human space flight program would cost three billion dollars more than the 18 billion dollars currently in NASA's budget.
"Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations," the committee wrote. "Such is the case today."
The program to send humans back into space, dubbed Constellation, was launched by former US president George W. Bush in 2004, with the goal of sending astronauts to Mars in 2020.
But in an executive summary of its report released Tuesday, a White House commission named by President Barack Obama to review the US manned space program, said the current schedule was unachievable.
The panel made clear that NASA lacks the funding to accomplish the ambitious goal set by Bush of returning to the moon in a little over a decade.
The committee recommended a "flexible path" that could explore the inner solar system with a "possible rendezvous with Mars' moons or human lunar return by the mid to late 2020s."
A full report was due to be released later this month.
NASA offered various scenarios for a possible continuation of the program, but cautioned that "whatever space program is ultimately selected it must be matched with the resources needed for its execution."
The report also urged the US space agency to enlist other countries in human space exploration, as a possible way to finance space exploration, as well as possible ventures launched with private companies.
"Actively engaging international partners in a manner adapted to today's multi-polar world could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global resources and enhance the exploration enterprise," it said.
Other questions addressed by the panel deal with the future of the soon-to-be-retired US space shuttles, which at present are due to be permanently grounded sometime in 2011, although the panel said that period could be extended to 2015.
The report also explores the future of the International Space Station and the feasibility of space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.