Augustine’s Pathway to Nowhere

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According to the Committee on Human Spaceflight headed by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norman Augustine, it would involve too much risk for NASA to aim to reach Mars by the end of the next decade. Indeed, according to Mr. Augustine and his fellow worthies, it is beyond the capability of the United States to return astronauts to the Moon half a century after they first went there.

A more responsible option, say the eminences of the committee, would be to continue to fly the space shuttle until 2015, and then initiate a program to deorbit the international space station by 2020. In other words, rather than embracing the risk of attempting Mars, the Augustine Committee believes that it is fully responsible for NASA’s human spaceflight program to plan to spend $100 billion of the taxpayers’ money over the next 11 years in order to accomplish absolutely nothing.

Of course, if we fly the aging shuttle fleet (with its demonstrated 2 percent risk of loss per flight) till 2015, there is plenty of chance we will lose a vehicle and crew. However, this risk could be mitigated by reducing the launch rate to one per year, or perhaps by just funding the STS program, without actually flying any shuttles at all.

But wait, there’s more. The Augustine panel believes that NASA’s human spaceflight program should have its funding increased. Given what they might have said in this regard, that’s a relief. But in conjunction with this recommendation, I am reminded of an employee I had in my company a few years ago. He was doing seriously substandard work, and I told him so. He replied that the reason why his work was so poor was because I paid him too little; if I wanted to get him to do a good job, I would have to give him a raise. I leave it to the reader to guess what happened next.

Interviewed on PBS TV Aug. 14 about his committee’s conclusions, Mr. Augustine said the reason why NASA cannot be expected to achieve comparable feats to those of the Apollo era, is because at that time, the space agency commanded 4 percent of the federal budget, while today it gets less than 1 percent. These figures seem compelling but are actually misleading.

Put in today’s dollars, NASA received a total of $230 billion between 1961 and 1973, for an average of $18 billion per year. NASA’s budget this year is $18 billion, and the political establishment seems willing to provide about this level of support for the foreseeable future. Between 1961 and 1973, with this same funding rate, NASA built and flew the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Ranger, Surveyor, Mariner and Pioneer programs, and performed all the development needed for the Viking and Voyager missions as well.

In addition, over the same span, the agency developed hydrogen/oxygen rocket engines, multistage heavy-lift launch vehicles, in-space life support, spacesuits, deep space navigation and communication, nuclear rocket engines, space nuclear reactors and radioisotope thermoelectric generators, lunar rovers, soft planetary landing techniques, re-entry technology, orbital rendezvous technology — indeed the entire bag of tricks we have used ever since to do everything we do in space — and built the Cape Canaveral launch complex, the Deep Space tracking network, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Johnson Space Center, and all of the rest of the ground infrastructure supporting the space program as well.

And again, all of this was done on the same average budget as NASA has today. NASA’s current budget is a smaller percent of the total federal budget than it was in the 1960s because the country was much poorer then, and had less money to spend overall. But the relative poverty of the nation in the past was hardly an advantage for the Apollo era. No, what the space program had then which it lacks today is not money, but bold, competent and responsible leadership. Unfortunately, it was this that the Augustine Committee proved unwilling or unable to provide.

That America’s space leaders of the 1960s were bolder and more competent than those since is beyond dispute; but, with all the daring risks they took, were they truly more responsible? Yes, they were. They were more responsible because they understood that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. Reasonable people may differ on whether it is more worthwhile to spend $100 billion to open new worlds to humanity in space or to meet human needs on Earth. But it is hardly tenable to defend $100 billion in zero-accomplishment space agency expenditures in the face of social needs elsewhere.

To take one example, every $3 million spent on highway repairs in this country, will, on average, save one life. NASA’s yearly $18 billion budget therefore, comes at a cost of 6,000 lives. In the face of this harsh reality, is it therefore responsible to recommend, as the Augustine Committee does, spending a billion dollars or so (330 highway deaths) to deorbit a space station built at the cost of over $60 billion (20,000 highway deaths) to avert a 0.1 percent chance of someone being harmed should the ISS, abandoned by NASA, eventually re-enter in its own good time?

Or more to the point, is it responsible to waste hundreds of billions of dollars avoiding taking on the challenge of Mars for decades, in order to marginally reduce the risk exposure few volunteers when, or if, the mission is ever flown?

To those to whom much is given, much is expected. The Augustine Committee received plenty of testimony making it crystal clear that Mars — not low Earth orbit, not the Moon, not the Lagrange points, not the near Earth asteroids, but the martian surface — is the place in space where human explorers are of truly critical value.

So Mars is the mission, and, as they say in the Army, the mission needs to come first. The Augustine Committee wants more money for NASA, but refuses to propose the mission that would make more money worthwhile. Instead they prefer to accept a course that can only result in further decades of stagnation, endured at tremendous cost, accomplishing nothing, until perhaps the patience of the American taxpayer is exhausted and our human spaceflight program is consigned to oblivion.

This is indeed tragic. One can only pray that an administration elected on the promise of hope, and change, and the fierce urgency of now rejects such spiritless advice, and elects instead to provide the decisive leadership necessary to give the American people what they want and truly deserve, which is a space program that is actually going somewhere.

Robert Zubrin, Ph.D., an aerospace engineer, is the president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society, and author of “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.”