Augustine Panel Member Rallies Support for Senate’s NASA Bill

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A former member of a White House-appointed committee that reviewed NASA’s human spaceflight program last year urged fellow panelists to back a Senate bill that supports commercial space and technology development efforts detailed in the group’s final report.

“Those who want to change the way things have been done as an important step forward to a human future beyond [low Earth orbit] should, in my opinion, strongly support the Senate version of the NASA authorization,” wrote Princeton University professor Christopher Chyba in an Aug. 25 e-mail to all nine fellow former members of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee.

Chyba, a professor of astrophysics, said he prefers the bill passed by the full Senate Aug. 5 because it recommends more funding for privately developed crew vehicles and advanced technology research than companion legislation moving through the House. In his e-mail, he said reconciliation of the two bills is under way at the congressional staff level “and any efforts to influence that process probably has to happen by the end of September or so,” after lawmakers return from a six-week summer recess.

“It will not be easier to get what we’d like in the next Congress,” he wrote.

Led by retired Lockheed Martin chief executive Norm Augustine, the blue-ribbon panel issued a report in October 2009 that underpinned President Barack Obama’s decision to kill the Moon-bound Constellation program and delay NASA’s deep-space exploration plans in favor of extending space station operations through at least 2020 and spending $6 billion over five years on commercial crew initiatives.

The House Science and Technology Committee approved legislation July 22 that calls for scaling back Obama’s commercial crew plans and exploration technology demonstrations and continuing development of a government-owned crew transport system. While the Senate version of the bill calls for more funding for commercial crew initiatives, it also supports a government-owned backup should private-sector space taxis fail to materialize.

In his e-mail, Chyba described the Senate’s proposal as a “game evolver” rather than a game-changer, but said it’s preferable to the “business as usual” approach prescribed in the House version.

“My understanding is that those who most strongly criticized our committee’s findings are rallying around the House bill, and will hold some public fora to this effect,” he wrote in the e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

The Senate bill, he wrote, provides “nearly everything I could want to see for NASA at this point, given political reality,” despite its prescriptive nature, which calls for developing a heavy-lift launch vehicle based on technologies derived from the space shuttle program and Constellation’s Ares rockets that Obama seeks to abandon.

Saying the Senate language puts NASA “in a box with respect to heavy lift,” he said the upshot is that NASA likely would develop launch architecture for deep space missions similar to the space shuttle-derived Direct proposal briefed to the Augustine committee last summer by a group of renegade engineers.

“My own opinion — I don’t expect all of you to share it — is that this is the right answer, and in fact this was my view a year ago,” Chyba wrote, adding, “Whatever misgivings one may have about the Senate bill not being 100 [percent] of what we might have wanted, it moves NASA in the right directions for the main issues.”

Chyba is not the first member of the independent Augustine committee to express personal support for specific options presented to Obama last fall. Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles said last year he supports continued development of Constellation’s Ares family of rockets, while XCOR Aerospace chief executive Jeff Greason, who also serves as vice chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation here, has said he favors a heavy-lift launch solution derived from U.S. Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles. Even Augustine, who has led numerous independent commissions over the years, has publicly defended elements of Obama’s plan.

Craig Holman of the government watchdog group Public Citizen said federal revolving-door laws designed to curb special interests do not prohibit former federal advisory committee members from publicly endorsing aspects of the programs and policies they are tapped to review. He also said there is nothing wrong with urging support for legislation, so long as it does not serve to benefit the person financially.

But while Obama has taken steps to limit the influence of special interests on the executive branch with a 2009 crackdown on the appointment of registered lobbyists to federal advisory bodies like the Augustine committee, Holman says more needs to be done.

“The Federal Advisory Committee Act has not squarely addressed some of these problems,” Holman said Sept. 8. “What would help tremendously would be if there was full disclosure of the employment histories of all members of these federal advisory committees posted online so the public and press could scrutinize where serious conflicts of interest arise.”

Since the committee’s report was released last year, House lawmakers have questioned the cost and schedule analysis underlying its options.

In a March 23 letter responding to questions from the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, Aerospace Corp. Vice President Gary Pulliam said some of the company’s cost assumptions were provided directly by Augustine committee members. One assumption, according to Pulliam, was a $3 billion NASA investment the Augustine committee said was necessary to develop a commercial transport capability — a figure the Aerospace Corp. was not asked to confirm independently.

“In fact, no verification could be performed given the Committee’s statement that this dollar amount was simply NASA’s portion of the total cost,” Pulliam states in the response. “No traditional independent cost or independent schedule estimates were performed.”

Pulliam said the Augustine committee formed an internal working group that set the ground rules for the Aerospace Corp.’s affordability analysis. The working group was led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Edward Crawley, a board member of Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., which is developing a rocket and spacecraft to deliver supplies to the international space station. Other members included XCOR’s Greason; former astronaut and Aerospace Corp. board member Sally Ride; and Bohdan Bejmuk, a former Boeing executive and Sea Launch general manager. Following his stint on the Augustine committee, Bejmuk joined fellow panelist Leroy Chiao at Excalibur Almaz, an Isle of Man-based company developing a crewed commercial spacecraft.

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University here, said he is less concerned with potential conflicts of interest among former Augustine committee members than with the lack of rigor applied to their analysis.

“The approach being advocated by the administration is not one that fills you with any confidence,” he said, citing the $3 billion NASA investment assumption Crawley provided to the Aerospace Corp. included in the committee’s full $5 billion cost estimate for commercial crew detailed in the final report. “I believe there is no historical basis for asserting you can human rate a system for that amount of money.”