It's 'Make or Break' Time for NASA

The results of misbegotten space policy choices over the past decades are finally coming to a head in the new administration. The cans have been kicked down the road as far as possible with regard to when to retire the space shuttle, and the future of NASA's human space flight program in general and the International Space Station (ISS) in particular. Indeed, we're reaching a point of no return.

Fortunately, at least some uncertainty has been reduced with recent reports that the U.S. is moving toward a decision to continue supporting ISS through 2020, despite the fact that it will add a couple of billion dollars per year to the NASA budget -- something not anticipated in previous plans. But this makes the issue of how we will service the ISS  all the more important.

NASA recently provided policy makers with two shuttle extension plans: one to 2012 and the other to 2015. But despite attempts by Florida legislators to extend the program, external tank production has been shut down. This means that there will be a limited number of flights that the system can perform, regardless of how long we continue to fly, because each flight requires a tank.

And even at a low flight rate, the program is very expensive on an annual basis, putting further pressure on the budget. Once we run out of tanks, the program will end, with nothing in place to allow us to get astronauts to and from the ISS. This will make us dependent on the Russians into the indefinite future for human space transportation, unless SpaceX can come through soon with the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule.

Since the decision seems to be irreversible -- or at least no reversal is in the cards since the president's proposed budget doesn't contemplate it  -- this makes the decision of what will replace that capability ever more urgent.

Unfortunately, Ares I and Orion -- the launch vehicle and capsule that are supposed to allow us to get astronauts to and from earth orbit (and eventually, in conjunction with other hardware elements, all the way to the lunar surface and back by the end of the next decade) -- are far over budget and behind schedule. The original plan laid out in President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" (VSE) five years ago was initial capability to orbit earth in 2014, implying only a three-year "gap" with a planned shuttle shutdown in 2010. Since then, the schedule has slipped to at least 2015, with little confidence of actually making that date.

With regard to the budget growth, NASA's own projected costs to first lunar landing have risen from an initial estimate of $52 billion to $97 billion currently, and the Congressional Budget Office not unreasonably projects additional growth to more than $100 billion, based on program history. While this may seem like couch cushion change in the current environment of trillion-dollar deficits, the pressure to cut it will be intense.

Even ignoring the budget and schedule issues, there are serious concerns about what we will get for the money. The technical issues of vibration in the first stage, potential drift into the tower during liftoff, underperformance of the vehicle, and excess weight of the capsule and service module have resulted in NASA reducing the initial crew size to orbit from six to four. Moreover, the Aerospace Corporation has reportedly recently performed a study indicating that using existing launch vehicles for the Orion could save a significant amount of money without reducing crew safety.

With all of these issues on the table, and the fact that NASA still lacks a permanent administrator (Deputy Administrator Chris Scolese has been the acting administrator since Mike Griffin left in January), it isn't surprising that the administration has decided to pull together an independent blue-ribbon commission to look over the situation and make some recommendations.

The commission will reportedly be headed by Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin and former head of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He will no doubt be viewed as a good candidate for such a job (he headed a previous commission on space policy almost two decades ago, though many of his recommendations, including a budget increase for NASA of 10 percent per year, were ignored). The only issue with him may be a potential conflict of interest in that he may still own Lockheed Martin stock, and they manufacture the Atlas V, one of the vehicles that could compete with the Ares I.