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When you look at the changes occurring in US human spaceflight at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is obvious that the situation is extremely complex and not necessarily clear. When the Space Shuttle’s retirement looming ever nearer, the Ares I Shuttle successor encountering persistent technical setbacks, and the lean budgetary environment are taken into account, one cannot be blamed for failing to immediately see a solution that preserves all of the off the shelf technology, as well as that in development, soothes all of the primary stakeholders, and maintains the original timetable established by Project Constellation, all within budget.
In early May, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy requested a review of US space flight plans in light of the existing concerns and challenges; as a result, NASA’s acting administrator, Chris Scolese, established a panel chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO, Norman Augustine. Tasked with providing expert advice on and detailed analysis of the options “to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight – one that is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable”.
At this point, the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Commission, has completed its public meetings and is working to complete their final report to the President, a report that is intended to delineate options while leaving the final decision to the President. Despite this fact, the panel has already indicated through preliminary findings that the only sure way to close the anticipated gap between the retirement of the Space Shuttle and its successor is for that successor to be a truly “shuttle-derived” vehicle that minimizes the amount of new research and development work required. By any benchmark, the Ares I/Ares V path being pursued by Project Constellation fails to meet this mark, as the numerous changes made (top-mounted crew/cargo instead of side mounting, an enlarged Solid Rocket Booster, and development of a new rocket motor based on the J-2 engine of Project Apollo fame, to name a few highlights) make the development of these vehicles more akin to a new project than an extension of Shuttle. Given the mention of commercial launch services to send crews to the International Space Station, it is obvious that cancellation of the Ares I seems a very real, perhaps even likely, option. Still, one of the scenarios currently on the table utilizes a "Ares V lite" for both human (non - ISS) and cargo launches, so there is the possibility of one of the Ares family living to see another day.