Panel Recommends Major Changes in Space Policy

Critics have argued that it is senseless to abandon the facility just a few short years after completion, and that having the Russians control our destiny for such a long period of time would be both imprudent and (in former administrator Griffin’s words) “unseemly” for a great nation that claimed to be the world leader in space exploration. The Augustine panel seems to agree, and all of their options except the first assume the ISS continuing at least through 2020, with a potential Shuttle program extension. But this wipes out much of the assumed available budget for the new program. And none of them seem to put humans back on the moon within the next two decades.

Conventional wisdom, as described by long-time space policy analyst Marcia Smith, is that there are two broad options:

That leaves the White House with a tough decision: back billions more for human space exploration, or support an emasculated program that critics will call pointless.

“Giving NASA a couple more billion dollars a year for the next 20 years isn’t really going to affect the deficit that much, considering how huge the deficit is,” Smith said. “So it’s a matter of presidential policy and what Obama wants to do.”

While it’s true that, in today’s budget environment, a few billion added to the NASA budget is a rounding error, this formulation presumes that there’s nothing wrong with NASA’s approach that can’t be solved by simply sending more money. But the agency’s problems are much deeper than that.

Fortunately, there is a third option. It remains a politically unpalatable one to much of the Beltway establishment, particularly on the Hill, but it’s one for which the panel started to break the ice in its specific presented options, particularly in variation “B” of Option 5: get NASA out of the earth-to-orbit launch business, which it doesn’t seem able to do affordably, and spread the work around to the U.S. commercial sector and potential international partners. The problem isn’t just development costs of the new rockets; it’s the operational costs.

As one of the panel members, XCOR head and space entrepreneur Jeff Greason noted, “If Santa Claus brought us this [Constellation] system tomorrow, fully developed, and the budget didn’t change, our next action would have to be to cancel it,” a view concurred with by fellow panel member Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman in space. Even Option 5 in general, the “Deep Space” option, in which astronauts would be sent far beyond earth, to the asteroids or the moons of Mars is unaffordable with the current planned budget, and many critics say that not having an initial plan to descend humans deep into the gravity wells of Mars or the moon lacks sufficient public interest, though I disagree.

Option 5(B) is the most radical solution, which was discussed a great deal in the public panels, but (unfortunately) not as emphasized in the final panel results (though it is still there). It is to develop a different mindset -- an architecture to separate out hardware launches from propellant launches, and start to develop an affordable transportation infrastructure for space.

Launching propellant separately in increments of varying sizes provides several benefits: it allows easy participation by international partners and commercial launch services, putting no one country or company on the critical path; it provides a vast new market of low-cost payload for a fledgling commercial launch industry, allowing them to develop vehicles while risking only the vehicles; and most importantly, it eliminates the need for any heavy-lift capability exceeding new larger versions of the existing Delta IV and Atlas V offered by United Launch Alliance. This would save billions in development costs of a new heavy lifter, and billions more in operating costs of such a system, with its high fixed annual costs and low flight rate.

Even without the refueling option, Chairman Augustine made it clear in an interview on the Newshour on Friday that NASA has to be a better customer, embrace commercial launch providers, and help build the commercial launch industry in the same way that the Post Office provided a critical market to the early aviation industry, with airmail.

Unfortunately, while such a plan is attractive to people who are more space enthusiasts than NASA fans, what it won’t do is continue the politically important NASA/contractor gravy train that has been the true raison d’etre for continuing congressional support of the federal human spaceflight program since the end of Apollo. So even if the White House likes it (only Florida will be considered important politically for the 2012 reelection campaign -- the White House has no expectations of carrying Texas or Alabama anyway), it may be dead on arrival on the Hill. This is a shame because, as I discussed at length last month in The New Atlantis policy quarterly, it may offer us the only way to affordably break out of the low-earth-orbit merry-go-round, at multiple billions per flight, in which we’ve been trapped since the last human trod on lunar dust over a third of a century ago.

Winston Churchill famously noted that Americans will usually do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities. Perhaps, forty years after the first moon landing, we’ve reached that point. The policy actions of the White House and Congress in the coming months will tell us.