30 July 2009
For the past three days, the “Augustine Commission” has been holding public meetings as part of their study of the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program. They still have a few weeks before their final report is due on the President’s desk, but the public meetings have been a great view into the current status of NASA and where the committee’s thoughts are pointing. Here is my attempt to act as your magic 8-ball and trying to divine some of the main points we can expect in the final report, and some of the tough problems that the commission is facing for which there may not be any easy answers.
It seems clear that the committee is going to recommend that the International Space Station keeps flying beyond 2016. We have spent many billions of dollars and many years building it, and it would be a shame to send it crashing into the ocean after only a few years of operation. The station would likely play an important role in preparing for any long-duration mission beyond LEO, and in basic biological research on the effects of spaceflight.
The ISS is also key to NASA’s role in diplomacy. It was emphasized that cooperation is space is an excellent tool for forging and strengthening alliances, and that the United States should demonstrate “soft power” by being a leader in space, but by not dominating other nations. I think it is also likely that the commission will recommend placing allied nations on the “critical path” to a greater extent, meaning that they would be giving roles that are crucial to the success of the mission. As one of the panel members said, it’s not much of a partnership if the “partners” aren’t allowed to do anything that matters.
And then there is the infamous “gap” between the end of the space shuttle program and the first flights of the Ares I (or whichever launch vehicle ends up going forward). Sally Ride presented a particularly grim (a.k.a. realistic) assessment of the shuttle, ISS and the gap, suggesting that the gap in our country’s capability to send anyone into space will be longer than expected. She also showed that the space shuttle is far-and-away the most capable vehicle for, you guessed it, shuttling cargo to and from the space station. The bad news is that there is only one extra shuttle external tank and production has been shut down already. So one more shuttle flight would be feasible, but more than one would be a major extra cost.
So, if we want to make the ISS useful, it needs to fly longer, which costs money. We may also need to have another shuttle launch, which costs money. And to shorten the gap, Constellation needs to proceed as fast as possible, which costs money. That money is not there.
Another almost-guaranteed point to expect from the commission is that NASA needs to get out of low earth orbit. The destination is somewhat more uncertain. There is a lot of talk about going to Mars, but other moon-centered or “space centered” (e.g. lagrange points, near-earth-objects, etc) were also discussed. Unfortunately, the Mars plans seemed to assume that the Mars spacecraft would have to be enormous — in the hundreds of tons range. Other potential scenarios also seemed a little bizarre to me, like sending humans to orbit Mars or Venus but not land. The whole science benefit of humans is to walk around on the ground! We operate robots on the surface perfectly fine from Earth! It’s possible that the presenter misspoke or I misunderstood, but I would expect a better-thought-out final plan.
I would also expect the commission to emphasize that NASA’s spaceflight goals need to be tied directly to other national priorities. This is important for public and political support, and I was pleased to see the whole panel enthusiastically agreeing that engaging the public is vital.
The argument for addressing other national priorities will likely be tied in with the potential for NASA to stimulate private industry, and therefore create jobs and dollars. One interesting idea presented today focused on changing the focus from large launches to numerous small launches to support orbital fuel stations. The idea here was that this would drive private companies to develop better launch capabilities, and NASA would shift away from being its own supplier.
Of course, all of this is the tip of the iceberg. I don’t envy the committee members: they have some apparently impossible decisions. Watching the last three days of meetings has made me less optimistic about the future of NASA, as sobering budget numbers and schedule predictions were presented. I don’t know how the committee will reconcile the desire to keep the shuttle flying and the ISS running with the need to reduce the human spaceflight gap and aim toward an inspirational goal beyond LEO. It may be that foreign and private involvement will save the day, but I am skeptical. On top of those challenges, it was pretty clear that a lot of basic research and development is needed to make Mars missions feasible, but there is not enough money to go around.
Will the exploration budget start eating into the science budget? Will the commission say flat-out that NASA needs more money? Or will they be able to work some sort of miracle and find a way to have our cake, eat it too, and meanwhile develop a new, high-tech cake capable of landing humans on Mars? This magic 8-ball doesn’t know. Ask again later…