WASHINGTON — If the White House decides to return astronauts to the moon or send them to explore the solar system, NASA may have to look to Moscow, Paris, Tokyo and possibly even Beijing for help.
The reason: money. Without a massive increase in its budget, the agency won't be able to send humans past the International Space Station anytime soon, according to a presidential panel that recently reviewed NASA's manned space program.
Teaming up with foreign space agencies — as suggested by that 10-member panel — would significantly shift the direction of NASA, from overseer of a purely American push for the stars to a part of a global science project funded by dollars, euros, rubles and yen.
But the idea is gaining traction as the White House wrestles with the panel's conclusion that NASA's needs at least $3 billion a year on top of its current $18 billion budget to run a "viable" exploration program.
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"Creating international partnerships is the only way America can maintain its leadership (in space)," said Joan Johnson-Freese, chairwoman of the Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College and an expert on China's space program. "America should be leading an international collaborative effort rather than trying to go it on its own."
Whether the U.S. is willing to turn NASA's human-exploration program into an international effort depends on President Obama, who's waiting for the final report of his Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine.
A summary of that report delivered last month offered the White House a choice: run a diminished exploration program or spend more money.
Given White House concerns about record deficits and other spending priorities, international partnerships may be another alternative.
"If the United States is willing to lead a global program of exploration, sharing both the burden and benefit of space exploration in a meaningful way, significant benefits could follow," the committee wrote.
How that would work is vague. The committee did not outline any specific plan.
But proponents cite the International Space Station. The $100 billion station — though paid for mostly by the United States — is supported by 15 countries, including Russia, Canada, Japan and most of Western Europe.