Outer Limits

NASA's post-shuttle space flight plans include a trip to one of Jupiter's four moons.

President Obama recognizes the important role NASA's manned space flight programs play in the advancement of science, technology, economic strength and international leadership, according to John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But the administration must ensure that the agency's bold plans, which include missions to the Moon and Mars, "remain on a strong and stable footing well into the 21st century," he said in a May statement announcing a review of NASA's manned space flight plans.

Obama established the independent review committee to determine whether the United States is "pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight-one that is safe, innovative, affordable and sustainable," the statement said.

The committee, chaired by Norman Augustine, former chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corp., has been examining, among other issues, crew and mission safety, life-cycle costs and development time for manned systems such as the Ares launch vehicle and the Orion crew exploration vehicle it is designed to carry.

NASA requested a $3.5 billion manned exploration budget for 2010, with an eye toward launching a new moon mission with Ares and Orion by 2020. The House Appropriations Committee slashed $669 million, or just under 20 percent, of that budget in its version of the 2010 NASA appropriations bill, pending completion of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee report, scheduled for release in late August.

The space agency plans to retire the space shuttle fleet, and has requested $3.2 billion for shuttle operations in 2010, but no funds thereafter. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew on the Columbia shuttle in 1986 as a mission specialist, unsuccessfully tried to add $2.5 billion to the budget to keep the fleet in operation through 2011.

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Apollo 11 flight to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, argues that NASA should keep the space shuttle in operation until 2015. In the August issue of Popular Mechanics, Aldrin said without the shuttle the United States would have to rely on Russia for launches to the International Space Station while NASA develops Ares and Orion. The review panel is expected to assess whether or not to keep the shuttle in operation.

In December 2008, NASA awarded two contracts estimated at $3.5 billion to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp. to operate unmanned cargo flights to the International Space Station through 2016. NASA's top priority for unmanned outer planet space missions is a flight to Europa, one of Jupiter's four moons. The planned launch date for the $2.5 billion to $3 billion project to put a landing vehicle on the surface of Europa is 2020.

It wasn't until May that the president named a NASA administrator, former astronaut and retired Marine Corps Gen. Charles Bolden, who Obama said will help the agency "push the boundaries of science, aeronautics and exploration in the 21st century and ensure the long-term vibrancy of America's space program."

Click here for the top 25 NASA contractors.

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