SAN FRANCISCO — Former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine was met with strikingly different receptions when he traveled to Capitol Hill Sept. 15 and 16 to brief U.S. lawmakers on the results of the White House appointed panel tasked with evaluating the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program.
During a Sept. 15 hearing before the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee, lawmakers expressed strong resistance to any changes in NASA’s Moon-focused Constellation program, asking Augustine repeatedly why the country should change course after investing billions of dollars over the past five years in the current exploration program. One day later, members of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee were far more interested in the details of the human spaceflight report and Augustine’s opinion on the merits of the five broad options it lays out for NASA’s future.
In spite of the stark contrast between the two hearings, Augustine’s message remained consistent: Unless the United States is prepared to add $3 billion a year to the exploration budget, it has little hope of sending people beyond low Earth orbit for decades to come. “We were unable to find any alternative human spaceflight program that would be worthy of this country that could be conducted for the funding profile now in place,” Augustine said.
The program NASA currently is pursuing is “fatally flawed,” Augustine said, because not enough resources have been devoted to it. With the current budget plan, NASA would be forced to halt support of the international space station (ISS) after 2015, a prospect that was clearly unacceptable to lawmakers. “Why would we spend $100 billion building the space station and then put it in the Pacific Ocean?” asked Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) a former astronaut and chairman of the Senate subcommittee.
Augustine pointed out several additional problems caused by the funding shortfall. With the money currently allocated, it is unlikely that the Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew vehicle would be ready until 2017, about a year after ISS is deorbited under NASA’s existing plan. What is more, without additional money, NASA will not be able to field the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket critical to its Moon mission until the late 2020s. Even then, the landers and other hardware needed to carry astronauts to the lunar surface would not be available, Augustine told lawmakers.
Still, House lawmakers pressed Augustine to offer a compelling reason to abandon the current program instead of simply seeking more money to continue it. House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) repeatedly asked Augustine whether the Constellation program was “technically sound and effectively managed.”
Augustine replied that the Constellation program was well-managed. “We believe the existing program, given adequate funds, is executable and would carry out its objectives,” he said.
Edward Crawley, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and another member of the spaceflight review panel, added: “The [Constellation] program has some significant technical problems, all programs where you are really building hardware have developmental problems. But we did not see any problems that were not surmountable with the proper engineering talent and skill, which we believe NASA can bring to bear.”
Given that assessment, House lawmakers questioned the wisdom of even considering other options for space exploration. “It’s hard for me to understand why the president is seeking new options at all when there has been an agreed upon plan for several years,” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) said. “Why don’t we just fund the program we’ve all agreed to.”
That assessment was echoed by the testimony of former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. “The [human spaceflight] committee did not find a better option than what we have today,” said Griffin, now a professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville. “We should stay on the current path and fund it adequately or determine that the United States will not go beyond space station. That is not a worthy future for the United States in space.”
Still, lawmakers acknowledged how difficult it will be to find billions of dollars in additional funding at a time of record federal deficits. Even if Congress and the White House agreed to give NASA an additional $3 billion a year to finish Orion and Ares and set off for the Moon by the mid-2020s, still more money would be needed to continue funding ISS beyond 2015.
One way to ease the financial burden, Augustine said, was to forge international partnerships. Japan, Canada and traditional U.S. allies in Europe have significant assets and expertise to contribute to future endeavors, Crawley said. Augustine warned, however, that future partnerships would be seriously undermined if the United States halts ISS prematurely.
In addition to international partners, Augustine suggested that commercial space firms assist NASA in carrying out its work. “Our view is that NASA would be better served, rather than trucking hardware and people in to low Earth orbit, to be pursing an energetic exploration program,” Augustine said.
That view was met with skepticism by Griffin and by some lawmakers who questioned whether private firms should be trusted with astronaut safety. “Betting the farm on commercial crew transportation is unwise,” Griffin told the House panel. “I believe there will be a day when the U.S. government can turn to commercial providers. But that day is not yet and it is not soon.”
NASA has spent $7.7 billion to date on development of the Ares 1 rocket, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and other Constellation-related work. At the conclusion of the Orion preliminary design review earlier this month, NASA Constellation officials said they expect to spend a total of $35 billion by 2015, the program’s target date for conducting the first operational flights of Orion and Ares 1.
Of the five broad options the Augustine committee presented the White House, all but two entailed canceling the Ares 1 rocket and either scaling back or canceling the Ares 5 heavy-lift launcher. Every proposed scenario that entails keeping the space station in orbit through 2020 also entails dropping Ares 1 and counting on still-to-be-developed commercial vehicles for carrying astronauts and their supplies to the space station.
Nevertheless, Augustine said that in a recent discussion with NASA Administrator Charleshe recommended proceeding with the Ares 1-X flight test slated for Oct. 31. “If it were my call, I’d fly it,” Augustine told senators. “We will gain technical knowledge we paid a great deal to get. If we continue Ares 1, it is an important step. If not, it offers important information that relates to Ares 5.”
Throughout his testimony, Augustine emphasized that the space agency should develop a heavy lifter like the Ares 5 for future exploration of asteroids, the Moon and Mars — a planet he called “the destination we’re aiming at.”
For a variety of reasons including the dangers of radiation exposure, technical hurdles and cost, the space agency cannot yet set a course for Mars, Augustine said. “There is a great deal of additional homework that needs to be done … before we set out on a mission directly to Mars.”
If NASA devotes an additional $3 billion a year to space exploration, it could conceivably send astronauts on a series of missions during the next 15 to 20 years, including circumnavigating the Moon, docking with an asteroid and landing astronauts on a martian moon, Augustine told lawmakers. “It is our belief there are a lot of exciting things one could do along the way to Mars,” he said.