NASA’s next launch vehicle: Ares I-X, the first rocket to be tested for NASA’s Constellation Program, sits in pieces at Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. The rocket’s first flight test is scheduled for August.
The committee’s evaluation may also step outside of NASA’s current budget. Scott Uebelhart, a member of MIT’s Space, Policy and Society research group, who coauthored a white paper outlining potential goals of human spaceflight earlier this year, says that the question is whether the panel really has “carte blanche” to choose the best plans regardless of cost, or if it will be told, “Here’s the budget, tell us what you can do with it.”
Meanwhile, in a bill set to go to the House of Representatives today, the House Appropriations Committee has cut $700 million from the Obama administration’s requested $3.9 billion for the Constellation Program’s fiscal-year 2010 budget, which leaves the program at 2009 funding levels, pending the recommendations of the Augustine committee. While the administration will likely submit an amended budget request once it hears the panel’s results, Uebelhart says that this “time-out” sends mixed signals about the breadth of the Augustine charter.
Alternative technologies that the panel may consider are the primarily DOD-funded Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), based on already-existing rocket launchers like Atlas and Delta, and an option called Direct, based on existing Space Shuttle components.
The panel will also debate a balance of human missions with robotic ones. These could involve precursors to moon or Mars missions that set the stage for human exploration, as opposed to purely robotic missions. Other issues include opportunities that exist for international collaboration and how to further stimulate commercial spaceflight capability–NASA has already issued contracts to two space companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, to bring cargo to the ISS. The panel must also consider whether the United States should stay involved with the ISS beyond 2015. “You cannot just go back to the moon and utilize the space station at the same time on the same projected budget,” says Logsdon. “You have to give up goals, schedule, or increase the budget.”
However, without the power to evaluate human spaceflight against other space priorities, such as Earth observation satellites or orbiting space science telescopes, it remains uncertain how the panel’s results will fit into a comprehensive plan for future spaceflight. With a budget that’s tightening on all fronts, the administration and Congress will have to figure out how much NASA can afford to do safely after the committee completes its review.
Still, Crawley believes that the panel’s influence will be significant. “There are times and places where these groups can make an impact,” he says. “At the beginning of an administration, with a high-ticket item like the space program, there’s a lot of influence.” Logsdon agrees that the panel is “absolutely crucial to NASA’s future and the country’s future in space.”
Another former astronaut, Jeff Hoffman, adds, “They need a policy [on human exploration beyond Earth]. You can’t just cut the budget and push things further and further into the future, because eventually it will just fall apart. So they need a decision, what do they want to do, what do we want to do as a nation, and I think the Augustine committee will have big input on that.”