"What's really at stake in the short-term is Ares I, and all of this push for commercial crew I would think is viewed as an alternative to a government-run program like Ares I," said John Logsdon, a space policy expert professor emeritus at the George Washington University here. "Long-term, it's whether in fact there is going to be a meaningful space exploration program beyond the International Space Station."
The Ares I is based on the space shuttle's giant solid rocket motors built by Alliant Techsystems of Edina, Minn. Alliant Techsystems is the lead contractor on Ares I.
Sources in the administration and on Capitol Hill say it remains to be seen when or how the White House responds to the report. But sources both within the administration and close to it say an increase along the lines suggested by the Augustine panel is being weighed. Such an increase would add almost $1 billion to the space exploration budget in 2011, ramping up to about $3 billion annually by 2014.
"I think the $3 billion figure has been widely misunderstood," Logsdon said. "The actual proposal from the Augustine committee is a gradual increase to that level over four years through 2014, with only a little less than $1 billion proposed for next year."
Congressional sources say lawmakers are anxiously awaiting the administration's response to the Augustine panel's final report, though some question whether Congress would support the flexible path exploration option.
Augustine was pressed during a September congressional hearing to offer a compelling reason to abandon NASA's current exploration program rather than fund it at a higher level, for example.
However, the Augustine panel indicated during public meetings held over the summer that in order to keep Constellation on track for a first flight of Ares 1-Orion by 2015 and a return to the moon by 2020, NASA would need a total of $50 billion above current projections over the next decade.
"If you really want to do Constellation and keep it on the current schedule, or close to it, that's what you're looking at," one administration official said.
The excerpt above republishes the conclusion of the story. The introduction lays out the panel's recommendations around several options for next steps for Congress and the Obama administration, based on its finding that NASA is currently underfunded to carry out its stated mission. . . by about a billion dollars a year in the coming years. Among the options the panel seems to lean toward "the flexible path" idea. It posits that, rather than a return to the moon or Mars in the immediate future, the US space program should start to explore the nearby areas of space as a way on gaining the learning and technology to eventually get to Mars. The panel did not recommend any one option, but a series of plans that could be carried out with about $3 billion in additional funding. Without adequate monies, the panel concluded that the US space program will not be able to leave low earth orbit any time soon.
Finally, here is the Augustine Committee/NASA press release on the subject.