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Mr. President, Will You Lead Us to Greatness in Space?

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The roadmap is now complete. Today the commission formed to provide President Barack Obama with a series of potential pathways to America's future in space has delivered its final report. Officials in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP, as they say in Washington) received the report from my friend Chairman Norm Augustine, and have begun the formal process of reviewing the analysis it contains. The plan is for President Barack Obama to select one of the "options" for America's future in space that the plan lays out-or none at all or something else entirely.

For me, one option is superior to all the rest. A review of that option -- called by Norm the "flexible path" -- will be the subject of this week's blog. In future blogs, I'll explain some of the other elements of this important report, especially in terms of new heavy lift boosters and the use of commercial providers to send our crews to the space station. This is a report that should be read and digested by all Americans. But now, let's talk about flexible path.

Like, what is it?

In the words of the report:

The Committee developed five alternatives for the Human Spaceflight Program. It found:

• Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 budget guideline (no bucks, no Buck Rogers!)

• Meaningful human exploration is possible under a less constrained budget, ramping to approximately $3 billion per year above the FY 2010 guidance in total resources.

• Funding at the increased level would allow either an exploration program to explore Moon First (we shouldn't!) or one that follows a Flexible Path of exploration. Either could produce results in a reasonable timeframe. (Yes, we can!)

It is option 5 that got my heart racing! It says:

Option 5. Flexible Path. This option follows the Flexible Path as an exploration strategy. It operates the Shuttle into FY 2011, extends the ISS until 2020, funds technology development and develops commercial crew services to low-Earth orbit. There are three variants within this option; they differ only in the heavy-lift vehicle.

Variant 5A is the Ares Lite variant. It develops the Ares Lite, the most capable of the heavy lift vehicles in this option. Variant 5B employs an EELV-heritage commercial heavy-lift launcher and assumes a different (and significantly reduced) role for NASA. It has an advantage of
potentially lower operational costs, but requires significant restructuring of NASA.

Variant 5C uses a directly Shuttle-derived, heavy-lift vehicle, taking maximum advantage of existing infrastructure, facilities and production capabilities.

All variants of Option 5 begin exploration along the flexible path in the early 2020s, with lunar fly-bys, visits to Lagrange points and near-Earth objects and Mars fly-bys occurring at a rate of about one major event per year, and possible rendezvous with Mars's moons or human lunar
return by the mid to late 2020s.

Why do I support this option for America's future in space? Unlike the current plan, called Project Constellation, it bypasses a "Moon-centric" race that spends all of our time and precious development money on the Moon, and basically for the same amount of money -- a $3 billion annual boost for NASA -- allows us to roam the inner Solar System, developing the long-duration spacecraft and experience to travel deeper and deeper into space. We gain that experience -- and the valuable scientific research and engineering -- by making rendezvous with comets or Earth-threatening asteroids, eventually flying by Mars itself -- our "ultimate destination" in the words of Norm's group -- making early landings on the moons of Mars, like Phobos, before taking the plunge and setting up our first human colonies on the Red Planet itself.

And by the way, I think the new heavy booster we need should be a variant of their 5C: a true booster derived from the Space Shuttle, a side-mount monster that can carry both big cargoes and astronauts, too. Why on Earth (or off it!) do we need to waste money and time on the unstable and costly Ares 1 rocket that can barely limp into orbit? Let's make the best use of the money we have and shoot for a heavy lifter with both crew AND cargo capabilities. Option 5 also preserves the ability of America to return to the Moon as part of a grand global alliance that I have urged policymakers to consider.

All in all, option 5 makes dollars -- and sense -- for America.

I repeat the call I made last summer at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, when I spoke about the future of the space program. It is time we sailed the sea of space once more in a bold, expansive space vision. To achieve such a goal we need strong leaders, for to sustain a growing and momentous effort in space may require that we reject a defeatist mentality that mires us in second place, reject the loss of jobs that lack of leadership would cause, and that we set our sights higher, that if needed we sail against the wind. Not everyone will understand this need for America to lead the world in space.

In his grand novel about the space program, author James Michener put it plainly. "The world is called dark," Michener wrote, "not because the sun fails to shine, but because people fail to see the light." So let there be light.

President Barack Obama, the rest is up to you.

America, will you urge the president to pick a bold new mission for our nation in space? Call or text the president at 202-456-1111 or Switchboard: 202-456-1414. or email him at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.

In Twitter-friendly style, ask him this simple but profound question: Mr. President, will you lead us to greatness in space?

All Americans await his answer. For me, it is clear:
Ad Astra-per aspera! ("To the stars with difficulty!)

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