WASHINGTON — NASA needs to make a major detour on its grand plans to return astronauts to the moon, a special independent U.S. panel has told the White House.

NASA has picked the wrong destination with the wrong rocket, the panel's chairman said Thursday. A test-flight version of the new rocket, Ares, is on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, awaiting liftoff later this month. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should be concentrating on bigger rockets, the panel members said.

Norman Augustine, chairman of the White House-appointed panel reviewing the agency's spaceflight plans, said it makes more sense to land on a nearby asteroid or one of the moons of Mars. He said that could be done sooner than returning to the moon in 15 years as NASA has outlined.

The exploration plans now under fire were pushed by then-President George W. Bush after the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster. The moon-Mars plan lacks enough money, thanks to budget diversions, the panel said in a 155-page report. Starting in 2014, NASA needs an extra $3 billion a year if astronauts are going to travel beyond Earth's orbit, the panel said.

The key is where to explore space. In a report, the panel outlines eight options and leaves the choice to President Barack Obama. Three options are part of what the panel calls a "flexible path" to explore someplace other than the moon, eventually heading to a Mars landing far in the future. Augustine said the flexible path option, which includes no-landing flights around the moon and Mars, makes more sense from both a physics and finance standpoint.

Landing on the moon and then launching back to Earth takes a lot of fuel because of the moon's gravity. Hauling fuel from Earth to the moon and then back costs money.

It would take less fuel to land and return from asteroids or comets that swing by Earth or even the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, Augustine said.