WASHINGTON — Two days before a blue-ribbon panel’s final report on options for the U.S. human spaceflight program is due, a key panelist issued a strong personal endorsement of the NASA’s existing plan to go back to the Moon with the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares family of rockets.
“I’m a rocket engineer, a rocket scientist. I’m a big, big believer in the need for rocket technology, so I personally want to see Ares 1 going and the program going as it’s currently structured,” said retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, a member of the White House-appointed Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine.
Lyles, who led the Augustine panel’s subcommittee on interagency and international cooperation, said while it may be prudent to study other options, he would not want to “disrupt” what he considers a successful program.
“When I say successful, I mean they’re meeting most of their milestones, if not all of them, and seem to be technically doing the right thing,” said Lyles, who spoke Oct. 20 during a luncheon hosted by Women in Aerospace and the Washington Space Business Roundtable here, two days before the Augustine panel is slated to release its final report at an Oct. 22 press conference here. A summary report released in September said that NASA’s current program was “unsustainable” without a substantial budget boost and laid out several options for a U.S. human spaceflight program that did not include the Ares 1 rocket under development since 2005.
During his talk, Lyles said Augustine would address criticism of the panel’s cost estimates, conducted by Los Angeles-based Aerospace Corp., during the press conference.
“We know since the initial summary of the report came out there’s been some criticism, some comments about cost analysis that we did, and some comments from a lot of circles as to whether or not, why we did not endorse the program of record strongly enough,” Lyles said. “I thought we had, and I think that might be one of the things you’ll hear Norm address on Thursday.”
Lyles, who said he was recently tapped by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to lead the NASA Advisory Council’s space exploration subcommittee, said the Augustine panel determined an additional increase of $3 billion annually beginning next year is needed to fund any meaningful space exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
“Human spaceflight beyond [low Earth orbit] is not viable under the current fiscal year  budget guideline,” he said. “We thought that increased funding level would allow the administration, NASA, to support either an exploration program perhaps going to the Moon first or a flexible path option, so that’s what you’ll find.”
Asked to clarify whether or not the committee is calling for a full $3 billion annually for NASA beginning next year, or a more gradual increase leading to a $3 billion plus-up by 2014, as the panel’s initial findings appeared to indicate, Lyles said meaningful human space exploration is possible only with an immediate $3 billion annual increase above the agency’s 2010 budget run-out.
“I’m not sure what has changed in our final deliberations. I will tell you going in, in our final session, we were talking not a ramp up, we were talking about $3 billion a year,” he said. “We thought at least that was necessary, not to get us back to where we should have been if the budget hadn’t been constrained since 2004, that would take probably significantly more dollars if you will, but we certainly weren’t talking about a ramp up, we were talking about a step increase, if you will.”
Lyles said that $3 billion annual increase would not include additional funding to keep the station going beyond 2016, an expense not included in NASA’s current budget plan.
“As I recall, we were talking about $3 billion not including whatever extension was necessary to the shuttle, and not including either funds for the international space station to extend it, or God forbid, that there weren’t even funds in the budget to de-orbit the station,” he said, referring to the panel’s recommendation to safely fly out the space shuttle manifest in 2011, rather than retiring the orbiter in 2010 as planned. The panel also urged the administration to consider extending the space station to 2020 or 2025, years beyond NASA’s planned de-orbiting date of 2016.
Lyles said that panel’s final report will suggest that NASA consider overhauling its organizational structure to better align with its current mission.
“NASA today is perhaps larger than it needs to be, given the mission that it currently has,” he said. “We didn’t make any recommendations on what to do about that.”
Recalling his work on a 2004 presidential commission tasked with implementing former President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, Lyles said the group had wanted to recommend closing some of NASA’s excess infrastructure at its 10 field centers nationwide.
“We wanted to say there should be a NASA ‘BRAC,’ if you will,” he said, referring to the Defense Department’s politically charged base realignment and closure process. “But we thought that was politically not the expedient thing to do, so we basically said NASA should look at other ways to organize.”
Lyles said the Augustine panel would also recommend flying the space shuttle beyond its retirement date in order to lessen the gap between space shuttle retirement next year and the planned initial operational capability of Ares 1 and Orion.
“We postulated the idea that perhaps extending the shuttle, as long as it’s done safely, as long as it’s done in accordance with previous studies, particularly from the [Columbia Accident Investigation Board] report, that extending the shuttle is something that somebody should look at seriously to minimize the gap,” he said.
Lyles said the panel concluded that the United States must have a heavy-lift launch capability, regardless of what form it takes. NASA’s plan since 2005 has been to build the heavy-lift Ares 5 rocket using boosters and engines first developed for the smaller Ares 1. The Augustine panel laid out alternatives to Ares 5 that included human-rating the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 rockets developed under the U.S. Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, building a smaller version of the Ares 5, or reusing space shuttle hardware in new configurations.
“We found all the programs to be viable,” he said. “There are advantages and disadvantages with any of them, when you look at it. The current program of record, in my opinion, seems to be the right one.”
Lyles said modifying EELVs to carry astronauts into orbit could be tough to sell to the military.
“They have concerns about human rating EELV, not from a technical standpoint, but from a program interruption standpoint for national security space activities,” he said, adding “Our finding was that we in this country desperately need a heavy lift launch capability both in [low Earth orbit] and certainly beyond, and certainly we’re going to look at exploring going to Mars.”
Lyles said the committee advocates developing a commercial crew capability for low Earth orbit that would free NASA to pursue such deep-space missions.
“I know there are concerns about how you structure a commercial program,” he said, citing the panel’s field trip to Hawthorne, Calif,-based Space Exploration Technologies Inc.
“I was blown away with the attention to detail. I think everybody who has concerns about commercial activities, one you need to make sure they’re doing it right, and not cutting corners, and that’s what I thought I would see,” he said. “Two, you need to look at good examples and lessons learned and ensure that those are the right kinds of things that are going on, and don’t just wholesale reject commercial entities.”