Thursday, August 20, 2009

NASA: 'Outlook Bleak'

Jim Garettson
ExecutiveBiz Bog

After just seven more missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the Space Shuttle will retire without a replacement. Ex-Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, chair of the United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee review, has published his committee’s findings, and NASA’s budgetary future looks bleak. Augustine told PBS “the human space flight program really isn’t executable with the money we have.” Augustine has given the “White House a dilemma” of accepting the necessary increase in spending or continuing on a path that leads to severely constrained and delayed space exploration.

To find alternatives, NASA has committed $500 million dollars in stimulus funds to help two private firms, Space Exploration Technologies (better known as SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp (NYSE: ORB), deliver cargo to the station, but will only commit $50 million dollars for commercial human transport to the ISS. For perspective, “Fifty million is what it costs for one seat on the (Russian) Soyuz,” according to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.

But Lockheed Martin warns that commercial transit to the ISS would be costly and unsafe. John Stevens, director of business development for human spaceflight at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said “we’re having a hard time affording the Orion program, which is designed to take humans to the station and the Moon, and now they’re talking about starting a commercial program to take humans [to the ISS]…If we can’t afford one program, how can we afford two?”

Bottom line: unless NASA’s budget gets some significant breathing room, the US may lose its edge in manned space exploration.

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