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What Is the Future of Humans in Space?

Independent review of human-spaceflight plans gets under way today.

A 10-person committee charged with reviewing the future of U.S. human spaceflight will hold its first public meeting today, beginning a process that must cover a lot of territory in very little time.

Humans in space: Astronaut Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper performs space-station maintenance during the Shuttle Endeavour’s visit to the ISS in late 2008.

The independent panel of experts will examine NASA’s Constellation Program, which plans to send humans to the International Space Station (ISS), the moon, and possibly Mars, and will consider alternatives to options already on the table.

The review comes at a time when the Space Shuttle is facing retirement, and a new launch system, called Ares, isn’t scheduled to begin operations until at least 2015, leaving a gap in U.S. launch capability of five years or more. NASA’s Constellation Program has attracted criticism for the Ares design, as well as for slipping timelines and budget overruns.

In a speech at MIT last week, John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, outlined three key questions that the panel will examine: whether it’s possible to reduce the gap in launch capability, what the options are for extending the use of the ISS beyond 2016, and what a timetable for missions beyond low-earth orbit (LEO) might look like, given budget constraints.

It is notably an “advice only” committee: it will analyze options and present recommendations but will not determine the future of human spaceflight. “We’re not being asked to pick the direction,” says Edward Crawley, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT and one of the 10 panelists. “That’s why the president gets paid the big bucks. We just give him the list of options.”

The committee will report its findings to the Obama White House, Holdren, and a new NASA administrator: retired astronaut Charles Bolden is currently awaiting confirmation hearings. The panel’s report is expected by the end of August in order to affect an administration decision on the way forward, before the 2010 financial-year budget is set.

Dubbed the “Augustine committee” for its chair, Norman Augustine, a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin and a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on science and technology for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the panel includes former astronauts, industry executives, engineers, and experts on the civil space program. A NASA review team will provide technical support to the committee.

John Logsdon, who served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and was founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, says that the panel was well chosen, with “people that can do in-depth technical analysis, that have years of experience and reputations for integrity.”

But a key question that many analysts and proponents of human spaceflight are asking is what the committee members will actually focus on.

The technical background of the panel, says Logsdon, equips the members to examine the current Constellation Program. Criticism of the Constellation “architecture,” particularly the design of the Ares launch system, which requires separate rockets for crew and cargo, cropped up during President Obama’s NASA transition-team investigations. The question was whether this architecture or those based more heavily on existing technologies could be built faster and more cheaply. According to Logsdon, that criticism prompted the transition team to recommend that before the president “embraces” the current architecture, he get an independent judgment on whether it’s the right one. “And that’s what this panel is set up to do,” Logsdon says.

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.”

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