NASA's ambitious Constellation human space exploration program has been under an Obama-steered spotlight to see how it's going. That investigation has come to a stunning conclusion: NASA can't get to the moon if things stay as they are.
We knew the Constellation program was in trouble, partly through spiraling costs and partly through hardware issues to do with the radically new Ares I crew-launch rocket...but we didn't know quite how bad things have got. We do know now: The White House investigative panel has found NASA's plans are on an "unsustainable trajectory." The cost implications of the route NASA's chosen to follow mean that if it keeps spending as it is, it'll simply not achieve its goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020.
That's pretty shocking. The panel's conclusion is that it'll likely cost an extra $3 billion per year for NASA to achieve an expansion in human spaceflight—a goal it has assessed as valuable. That'll mean expanding NASA's budget upwards from the $18 billion it has this year, or radically overhauling the Constellation program.
Such an overhaul could involve changing the rocket systems design, and that's an interesting if controversial option, since several competing options that utilize more of the core Space Shuttle tech have long been championed within NASA itself. It could also involve opening up the human spaceflight program to more commercial companies—something Elon Musk and his SpaceX company will obviously approve of—and even converting the existing Delta 4 or Atlas 5 rockets to human-rated vehicles. Adjustments could also be made to the program itself, perhaps reconsidering the Moon as a primary target, and substituting one of Mars' moons (Phobos and Diemos) instead.
The panel also said the Shuttle's lifespan should be extended slightly, to fully finish the ISS—which would also get a lifespan boost beyond the criminally-short 5-years in operation the Bush Administration had planned for, meaning it could then serve as a training and medical-testing facility for the longer Mars missions.
In reality, the Obama administration will probably chart a path that uses several of these ideas, following the panel's recommendation of a "flexible path" route to Mars. And though we're in an economically dim period, there's one easy source of cash: The core U.S Defense budget for this year is expected to top off somewhere above $650 billion, and reach up to a trillion dollars if you include all ancillary defense-related spending. That sounds like a budget ripe for trimming...and indeed, Obama's already begun the process.