WASHINGTON — NASA will test the powerful first stage of its new Ares moon rocket Thursday, a milestone in a program that has already spent $7 billion for a rocket that astronauts may never use.
When that first stage is tested, it will be mounted horizontally. The engine will fire, shake and make lots of noise. But by design, it will not leave the ground. The same could be said for NASA's plans to go to the moon, Mars or beyond Earth orbit. It's not so much a physical challenge for engineers as it is a financial challenge for budgeteers.
The $108 billion program to return to the moon by 2020 was started five years ago by then-President George W. Bush. But a special independent panel commissioned by President Barack Obama concluded that the plan cannot work on the existing budget schedule because it's likely to cost at least an extra $30 billion through 2020.
Even NASA's soon-to-be-retired space shuttle fleet has proved that getting off the ground isn't a given, with two launch scrubs this week of a mission to the international space station.
The space station is finally finished. Yet NASA's long-standing plans call for junking the outpost in about seven years. If the agency keeps that schedule, it would mean that in the next decade NASA's astronauts could be going nowhere if there's no moon mission.
Obama's special panel looked at other options available for the space program — such as skipping the moon and going directly to Mars or an asteroid, or just cruising in the solar system. But they kept using words like "least worst scenario" during their final public deliberations earlier this month. In their report due Monday, they will also give advice about the end of the shuttle and space station programs.
The White House told the panel to aim to stay within current budget estimates.
"If you want to do something, you have to have the money to do it," said panel member and former astronaut Sally Ride. "This budget is very, very, very hard to fit and still have an exploration program."
The options that face the White House come down to variations and combinations of these themes: Pay more, do less or radically change American space policy. The most radical idea would be to hand much of NASA's duties to private companies.
"The problem is the size 14 foot in the size 10 shoe," said American University public policy professor Howard McCurdy, author of several books about the American space program. "It's just really hard to fit it all in. A lot of the assumptions made in 2004 (for the Bush plan) have just not materialized."
The panel will not tell the president which choice to make. That will be up to Obama. Until NASA is told to change course, it will continue with the Bush plan.
Thus, the first big test of moon program hardware is the rocket stage firing Thursday in Promontory, Utah. That test is of the main get-off-the-ground engine in the Ares I rocket. The full test rocket, complete with a dummy crew capsule and escape system, Ares I-X, is supposed to get a launch test at Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 31.