NASA's future plans in doubt?

June 17, 2009 4:59:41 PM PDT
An independent panel in Washington is reviewing NASA's plan for its future. [FULL COVERAGE: NASA and space shuttle coverage]

When NASA scrubbed Wednesday morning's launch of Space shuttle Endeavour because of a potentially dangerous hydrogen gas leak, it couldn't have come at a worse time.

When everything's going OK in the field, no one calls a team meeting. Experts are huddling to look at NASA's future plans, which may indicate something is a little uncertain. For a city dependent on space for at least a little bit of money and a lot of prestige, this panel can be a little nerve-wracking for Houstonians.

The space shuttle is going away next year, at least that's the plan for now, and the plan going forward is to develop a rocket that would take American astronauts to the moon by 2020. However, as this panel heard Wednesday, NASA is in trouble.

"Our problem has not been a lack of vision, but a lack of commitment," said Rep. Pete Olson of Texas.

With the current job ahead of it and the current budget NASA is looking at, "NASA simply can't do the job it's been given," said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

That puts the panel in a pretty tough spot. President Barack Obama asked the group to look at what's on the table today and what really should be on the table.

"There's been enough critical dissent within NASA that it's worth taking a fresh look," said Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut and panel member.

The criticism is pretty widespread. The Ares rockets are too expensive and too limited. They're also taking too long and as University of Houston Space Researcher Alex Ignatiev points out, the plan may not do enough.

"The plan currently is heavy on hardware, to the extent of ignoring everything else," said Ignatiev.

Ignatiev told us the Orion plan is like a family on a road trip. They're driving and driving a long way, but NASA just doesn't know what it's going to do when they get to the end of the road.

"We wanted to build the rocket ship to get us there and then we'll think about what were going to do once we got there," said Ignatiev.

So what to do? The panel only has until August to come up with suggestions for President Obama and today they heard several. Instead of developing an entirely new rocket, NASA could use existing rockets. A study released at the meeting showed it could be cheaper.

People asked to keep the shuttle flying longer, take the shuttle off and keep its engines or strap extra rockets on the existing space shuttle infrastructure and use it to go further. All of these suggestions have been brought up in the past.

The one thing that's clear, the space plan as it is today likely won't be the plan tomorrow.

"I would probably expect some changes, at least," said Chiao.

Any change could impact Houston's workforce. Nearly 15,000 of our neighbors work in space exploration. Many are already at work on the current plan for NASA's future, even more on the space shuttle. Change the plan, you change the workforce and we'll know in August if it's for better or for worse.

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