To get to the moon and then eventually go on to Mars will take much more money and technology than the U.S. space program has now, according to a report released today by an independent panel convened, at White House request, under former aerospace executive Norman Augustine.
-- Retire the space shuttle as planned in 2010 or 2011.
-- Extend the life of the International Space Station until 2020. NASA had planned to ditch the station -- which is still not finished -- in the Pacific Ocean in 2015 so it would have more money for its new fleet of ships, the Orion space capsule and its Ares booster.
-- Keep Ares and Orion going -- but recognize they probably won't be ready for regular use until 2017. They were originally expected to be operational in 2012. The panel said it might be an option to scrap the Ares 1 booster, and use other rockets instead.
-- Encourage commercial space development to fill in the gap between the shuttle and the next generation of ships.
To do all this, the panel said NASA would need substantially more funding -- an additional $3 billion annually starting next year.
In its 157-page report, the 10-member Augustine panel encouraged NASA to think beyond low Earth orbit, which is where astronauts have been limited since the end of the Apollo moon flights nearly 40 years ago. But they urged revisions in America's space ambitions.
"Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration of the inner solar system, but it is not the best first destination," they wrote. "What about the moon first, then Mars? By first exploring the moon, we could develop the operational skills and technology for landing on, launching from and working on a planetary surface. In the process, we could acquire an understanding of human adaptation to another world that would one day allow us to go to Mars.
"There are two main strategies for exploring the moon. Both begin with a few short sorties to various sites to scout the region and validate lunar landing and ascent systems."
But the panel said a Mars mission is not yet possible with current technology, and there may be simpler missions -- such as flights to near-earth asteroids or perhaps Mars' two small moons, that could be accomplished first.
Christopher Kraft, the famed flight director for the Apollo missions, told ABC News, after former President George W. Bush in 2004 proposed going back to the moon, that he believed doing it was the right thing to do.
"I think we would learn a great deal more about the moon itself," said Kraft, "but at the same time, if we build a scientific station on the back side of the moon, we will be able to look out onto the solar system we live in."
The space shuttle is 30 years old, and has flown 128 missions, with six more planned until the space station is finished and the shuttle can be retired. The first test version of the new Ares I rocket is on a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center now, ready for a test launch as early as next week.