Space travel future discussed in League City

LEAGUE CITY, TX [FULL COVERAGE: NASA and space shuttle coverage]
[WATCH: ABC13's 'Moon, Mars and Beyond' primetime special]

President Barack Obama is still deciding what type of support will be given to the space program. He commissioned a panel of people to talk with members of NASA and the public about what they think. There are just three meetings scheduled in the United States. One of them was held Tuesday in League City.

With only seven space shuttle missions left, its retirement is planned now for the end of fiscal year 2010.

"We think the shuttle flyout is likely to extend into FY 2011," said former astronaut and U.S. Human Space Flight Committee member Sally Ride.

A presidentially-appointed ten member panel has been looking closely at what might be next in space travel. Ride led an independent review which suggests first that the shuttle will need to be flown longer, possibly through March of 2011 to complete the space station, though funding for that isn't yet allocated.

Funding, Ride says, also will likely delay first launch of the Constellation program.

"It would be wise to assume a two year slip to the constellation IOC," Ride said.

Originally, the budget to design, build and operate the next vehicle through 2020 was over $100 billion. But congress slashed that by $20 billion.

"There are no shortcuts to space," Johnson Space Center Director Mike Coats said. "And space is not cheap."

How to get there is still not certain, either. Coats says the Orion crew module Ares I rocket stack is the only realistic approach, though Constellation program managers concede there are still issues attempting to fly excess weight on the vehicle as designed.

"My question pertains to the importance of going to the moon, not just mars," said committee member Norman Augustine.

There was further debate over whether it is necessary to return to the moon before going to mars. Astronauts say the moon would be good practice, that it's a smarter to try landing with a new vehicle at a location that's just four days from home before attempting it on the red planet, some nine months from planet earth.

There was also discussion Tuesday about whether or not it's best to extend the life of the ISS, currently set for decommission by the end of 2015, but that would take money away from the Constellation program. One thing that's agreed upon is that no one wants to see a five-year gap between the end of the shuttle program and the beginning of the next space vehicles.

The panel is supposed to report its findings to President Obama in the next 30 days.

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