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Why NASA Needs a Better Plan

Scott Pace says Obama’s mission for the agency is risky and unclear.

Last week, the Obama administration proposed a new budget for the U.S. space program that would cancel NASA’s efforts to develop new launch and transport technology and return humans to the moon by 2020. Instead, the budget focuses heavily on using the commercial sector to ferry astronauts to and from orbit.

Space expert: Scott Pace is the director of the Space Policy Institute and a professor of the practice of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, said at a press conference last week that he and senior White House officials will spend the next few months devising new overarching goals for NASA.

But Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, in Washington, DC, argues that relying on commercial companies is a risky maneuver, and could leave NASA without any clear direction in both the short and long term.

Technology Review spoke with Pace about the future of the U.S. space agency.

Technology Review: What are your thoughts on Obama’s proposed budget for NASA?

Scott Pace: I am disappointed that they chose not to fund the Constellation program or add the additional funds that the Augustine committee said would be necessary for a robust human spaceflight program. I think the NASA [budget] increase is good, and there is some good science and technology spending in the program, but it really did not restore a lot of the reductions that had been made in the fiscal year 2010 budget, so it continues a pattern of reductions to exploration, even though the NASA top line did go up somewhat.

TR: Are these reductions going to have a significant effect on the U.S. space program?

SP: The real issue is the future of human spaceflight and the question is, what [is NASA] doing after the space station? Because that is not very clear. [The administration] has made a commitment to the space station through 2020, which really gives us an opportunity to use it as a research facility, but it’s not clear what, if anything, is to come after the space station. Right now, with the canceling of the Constellation program, there are no announced plans for going beyond low Earth orbit. The deeper question is what NASA will be doing. What is it going to do when we rely on commercial rockets, and how is it going to maintain its skills as a good customer and overseer?

The new effort does not have an overall architecture yet; it may get one, but right now [the plan] has a heavy technology development effort, and there is a lot of new technology that one could do, but without an architecture, how efficient is that technology development going to be?

The commercial emphasis is also very heavy, and [the government is] placing a bigger bet on that coming online to provide access to low Earth orbit. So in the new program you have zero government development effort. It’s like changing your investment portfolio from a very conservative one with options for upside potential to a much more high-risk, high-payoff [scenario]. The commercial technology stuff by itself is great, and I have no objections to that. My concern is that by taking the Constellation program out of the mix, you have increased the risk to the agency and to the country, because if that commercial technology does not work, you do not have a low-risk fallback.

TR: How capable do you think the commercial sector is of developing technology for carrying humans and cargo to low Earth orbit?

SP: There is no intrinsic reason they can’t do it. The question is, if you are going to take that risk, what are going to be the regulatory standards? What are going to be the qualification standards? How are they going to work with NASA to ensure they meet the safety standards? The commercial folks have a legitimate complaint that it’s not clear what the standards are, so NASA needs to be clear about what it is going to need. [There needs] to be a lot of analysis and a lot of negotiations, because it’s not simply the reliability of the vehicle, it’s also the safety of the vehicle. What are your abort procedures? How do you qualify the vehicle? What is your vehicle health monitoring?

Again, I think it is possible to do it, but it requires a very detailed, in-depth dialogue between the government and industry, and the question is how long will that take and how expensive will it be. I don’t think there is any reason why technically it can’t be achieved, but it is going to be longer and more difficult than people expect.

TR: How does the White House’s proposed plan affect the U.S. on the international stage?

SP: I think the phrase is that the Russians are very happy. They see us as being reliant on them for quite a while, and we pay about $50 million a seat when we fly one of our guys on the Soyuz. There has been a long, three-year effort as part of a global exploration strategy to corral the 14 major space agencies to work together on lunar robotic and human exploration, and Mars sample return [missions]. Those were sort of the two initiatives within the global exploration strategy. The Europeans have been focused on Mars, the Americans on lunar exploration, and a lot of other countries on robotic missions. It is unclear what the U.S. international strategy is going to be, so if it is uncertain what the architecture is going to be, it is uncertain how we are going to cooperate with our international partners.

There are all these statements that we want to cooperate more. That’s great, but what do we bring to the party? If we are not bringing the Orion capsule, for example, or a launch system, or lunar lander, what is it that we are doing? Other countries have launch vehicles and perfectly good science programs, but human spaceflight was a skill set that was uniquely ours, and shared only with the Russians, and recently the Chinese. If we are going to be a leader in human space exploration, what is it we are going to be contributing? That is also unclear, and until we sort this out, at least in the short term, we will be less influential in the international manned space community.

TR: How much resistance will there be in Congress to the proposed budget, and do you think there will be any significant changes?

SP: Historically NASA gets whatever the president requests within a few hundred million dollars. Congress typically does not add or subtract a billion dollars. The real question is what the composition of that will be. Will all that technology money and commercial money survive, or will some of it be redirected toward some government effort? Whether it’s Constellation or not, I do not know, but the Congress voted twice on a bipartisan basis in both houses to support the Vision for Space Exploration and the Constellation program architecture. Since they have provided that support, if you ask them to do something different, they are going to have to be convinced.

The Obama administration is going to have to make its case as to why its approach is a better one, and they really have not had to make that case yet. I am sure they will, but they have not yet.

TR: One congressional member said that his biggest fear was that this could amount to a slow death of the nation’s human spaceflight program. Do you share that concern?

SP: That is certainly a possibility–it is not a guarantee, but it certainly is a risk. If the commercial or technical stuff does not happen on time, if the lack of a defined plan erodes political support, if the space station program ends and there is nothing going beyond that and no market for some of these commercial launchers, the U.S. is out of the human spaceflight game. It is also possible that commercial spaceflight will succeed and there will be a strong and viable space tourism market, separate from the government, and I think that would be great. But [slow death] is a risk that we are being exposed to now.

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