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.

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.