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NASA's Plans Lack the Cash

Can the commercial sector rescue the U.S. human spaceflight program?

On Tuesday, after months of deliberation, the independent committee charged with reviewing the future of the U.S. human space program released a summary report of its findings, a document that will guide key decisions that lie ahead for the Obama administration.

Fly me to the moon? Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.

According to the report, the current crisis facing NASA lies with its budget, and not with technical or programmatic issues. “The report clearly stated that the current program is not executable or sustainable with the budget that we have,” says Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, in DC.

The report was issued by the Augustine panel, named after its chair Norman Augustine, a retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. It recommends extending the Space Shuttle to 2011 to complete its remaining flights and extending the life of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020 to ensure that the U.S. and international partners get a return on their investment. Crucially, the report also suggests utilizing the commercial sector for unmanned and potentially manned missions to reduce government costs.

NASA’s current program, called Constellation, calls for sending humans to the ISS, the moon, Mars, and beyond. The plan includes developing a new launch system and a new crew vehicle, called Ares and Orion respectively, to replace the aging Space Shuttle.

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The committee’s report puts forth five alternatives for human exploration of the solar system: continue with the current Constellation program; slow down and stretch out the Constellation program; focus on extending the life of the ISS to 2020, and develop a smaller version of the Ares V heavy-lift rocket for moon missions; extend the Space Shuttle to 2015 and the ISS to 2020 using either commercial services, a lighter version of the Ares V, or a shuttle-derived concept; and sending astronauts on deep-fly-bys of the moon, asteroids, and Mars.

The committee has stated that Mars is “unquestionably the most scientifically interesting destination in the inner solar system…but it is not an easy first place to visit with existing technologies and without substantial investment of resources.” Therefore, it recommends that the U.S. travel to the moon first or follow a “flexible path” option–in other words, embark on a series of deep-space rendezvous and fly-by missions before attempting to land astronauts on Mars.

James Oberg, a space expert and former NASA engineer, says that the report’s recommendation to develop commercial orbital access is central to some of the options. “There are some remarkable orbital vehicles that are being designed by the private sector,” he says.

“If we are to have a spaceflight program with the purpose of sending humans beyond low earth orbit, we need more money,” says John Logsdon, who served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and is the founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute. “If the budget is not increased, then we need to lower our goals, which [the committee] would call disappointing,” says Logsdon.

But Logsdon agrees with Oberg, adding that “the panel members looked at the commercial competitors and said yes, we think they can do the job. [The report] is an endorsement of commercial options.”

Future rocket: NASA’s test rocket, Ares I-X, being stacked at Kennedy Space Center in preparation for launch on October 31.

NASA’s current budget for fiscal 2010 is approximately $18.6 billion, an increase from fiscal 2009, but the human space exploration program has received $3.4 billion less than was suggested by the previous administration. In addition, the budget’s profile through 2020 is around $80 billion–$28 billion less than what the agency was told it could expect four years ago, when it devised the Constellation program.

“If you add in the $3 billion for the years 2011 to 2013 and put back in the projected inflation of 2.4 percent instead of 1.36 percent, then all the options that the Augustine Committee came up with are affordable,” says Pace, who was assistant director for space and aeronautics in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President George W. Bush.

Pace says he does not see any alternatives that are more attractive than the current Constellation program. “If the technical program is not broken, then do you change the policy, or do you change the budget? My opinion is you change the budget.” He adds that the current policy has been endorsed by two different congresses, under the NASA authorization bill in fiscal 2005 and 2008, and “is as solid of a policy as you are going to get.”

However, the Constellation program, which calls for developing the Ares I rocket for flights to the ISS by 2016 and building the Orion crew capsule to return humans to the moon by 2020, has attracted criticism. Logsdon says it’s clear that the committee does not think the Ares I is a good idea and that the most feasible date for moon landings would be mid-2020s.

Pace argues that the criticism of Ares I obscures deeper questions. “Are we willing to be dependent on the Russians for a longer period of time? Or are we willing to bet that commercial capabilities will arrive on time?”

Among the other options put forth by the panel, Oberg says that the flexible option is particularly interesting. “This could be the breakthrough path to develop new technologies for human exploration, as opposed to the favored ‘Apollo on steroids’ approach,” he says.

The panel also mentioned using a shuttle-derived launch vehicle, although most experts agree that this option would, in the end, be more expensive and leave the U.S. without an adequate heavy launch vehicle. It would only be viable if the Obama administration decided not to increase NASA’s budget.

The committee concludes that “no plan compatible with the FY 2010 budget profile permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way.” The question the Obama administration will have to answer, says Pace, is “what sort of space program do we want to have, and what are we willing to pay?”

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