Panel Recommends Major Changes in Space Policy

The Augustine panel, assembled to deal with the daunting issues facing NASA’s implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), is wrapping up its work, with a final report to be presented at the end of the month. I’m gratified that, in large part, they seem to have acted in accordance with my recommendations (not to imply that they were following, or even aware of them). But even with options informed by such guidance, the new administrator’s task doesn’t grow any easier. He, the president, and other members of the administration were briefed this past Friday on the options that will be provided by the panel.

The good news is that for the first time a major panel of this sort has explicitly stated that the goal of having a human spaceflight program has to be for the ultimate settlement of space, and if we aren’t aiming toward that, there’s not much point. Also, for fans of sending humans to Mars, all of the options are designed with that end in mind, though probably not fast enough for them. The other good news is that the panel seems to strongly support commercial space and believes that the new policy should be much more supportive of it than NASA’s current plans. But for advocates of anything resembling the current four-year-old plan to do “Apollo on Steroids,” with new launch and crew delivery systems dubbed “Constellation,” none of the options will be pretty.

As reported at the Orlando Sentinel space blog, the five broad options provided to the administration were:

1.) Constellation constrained to FY2010 budget projections (ISS -- International Space Station -- closed in 2015).

2.) ISS +Lunar mission constrained to the FY2010 budget which uses a commercial rocket and capsule instead of Ares I to take crew to the station.

3.) ISS +Lunar less constrained to the FY2010 budget, which also uses a commercial rocket instead of Ares I to take crew to the station.

4.) Extend the space shuttle under a less constrained budget to 2015 to close the gap in U.S. human spaceflight and give NASA time to build a rocket from shuttle parts for lunar orbits and scouting missions on the moon.

5.) Three “Flexible” deep space exploration options all under less constrained budgets:

A) Uses a smaller version of the Ares V called Ares V lite and no orbiting fuel depots;

B) Uses an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle and fuel depots;

C) Uses a rocket made from space shuttle parts and fuel depots.

Option 1 is the current NASA plan. Even ignoring the myriad technical issues to be overcome with the planned new systems, NASA lacks the budget to execute the plan, with a $50 billion shortfall. In fact, the first three options, described as “constrained to the FY2010 budget,” all vastly exceed it. And none of the options are good news for proponents of the Ares I launch system that NASA wants to develop. An expensive (over $300 million) test article (that doesn’t contain any actual relevant flight hardware, and for which the Air Force Range Safety office at Cape Canaveral has yet to provide permission for flight) was proudly rolled out this week. Even if the Potemkin rocket test goes forward, it may be for naught, as will much of the billions spent on the program so far.

Moreover, with the current planned budget level, the panel reported that it doesn’t have the money to do it in any alternate way, at least with business as usual, and keeping thousands of existing jobs at large NASA centers in Florida, Alabama and Texas. In addition to the need to maintain the politically important employment, a large part of the problem is that a key premise of the VSE -- the Shuttle phased out next year, and the International Space Station abandoned in 2016, with the funding thus saved to be applied to the new exploration program -- is also viewed as politically untenable.

Budget overruns and schedule delays have resulted in a growing “gap” in our ability to service the station and change out U.S. astronauts with a U.S. system. This was originally planned to be only three years (the new system, the Ares I launcher and the Orion crew module, was supposed to be available in 2014). But the agency now has little confidence of achieving that operational goal before 2017, six years after Shuttle shut down, and a year after the space station was to be deorbited or handed over to the international partners. During all of this time the U.S. would be dependent on the Russians for rides to and from the facility.