US ambitions for manned space exploration have hit a major hurdle in the wake of severe budget constraints, according to preliminary findings of a panel appointed by President Barack Obama.
Reaching Mars was deemed too risky while returning to the Moon by 2020 was ruled out barring an additional three billion dollars per year to replace the retiring space shuttle fleet and build bigger rockets, according to the group led by Norm Augustine, a former CEO of US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.
"Really, we've given the White House a dilemma. The space program we have today, the human space flight program, really isn't executable with the money we have," Augustine told PBS public television last week.
"So either we have to do something with the current program that's not going to be very successful, I'm afraid, or spend a nontrivial sum more than that to have something that's really exciting and workable, and that's the challenge the White House is going to have, is to sort that out."
NASA allocates about 10 billion of its 18-billion-dollar annual budget on human space flight.
The outlook is bleak, with maintenance of the almost-completed International Space Station (ISS) through 2020 the only remaining viable project.
But the US space agency will be unable to transport its astronauts beyond 2010 due to the planned retirement of its current shuttle fleet, depending instead on Russia's Soyouz spacecraft until at least 2015 when the new Orion crew exploration vehicle and its accompanying Ares I rocket will be ready.
Also in the works is a plan to use commercial rockets to ensure transportation to and from the ISS.
The Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee, which presented its preliminary findings to the White House on Friday, will issue a final report on August 31 following a series of public meetings across the country.
Augustine said the panel, created by Obama shortly after he took office in January to review the space program launched in 2004 by his predecessor George W. Bush, would present four main options in its report.
Even if a manned mission to Mars remains a long shot for now, it's a "logical place that you'd ultimately like to wind up," Augustine said, while noting the many technical challenges facing such an endeavor.
He pointed to the little-known effects of galactic cosmic rays on human beings exposed to outer space for prolonged periods of time -- a footnote to keep in mind for travel to Mars, a 260-day roundtrip undertaking that Augustine said would probably also require one year on the red planet.
The White House could take months to decide its course of action, said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
"We have inherited one of the many failed promises of the Bush administration -- to set out a very good program without providing the resources to fund it," he told AFP, urging a new direction.
"We have lived an illusion for five years."
The US space shuttle program and the ISS, he said, "were a mistake" when compared to the Apollo Project that landed man on the moon for the first time.
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