Bolden: Flexible Path Approach is “Attractive to Everybody”

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WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says sending astronauts to various solar system destinations instead of focusing exclusively on the Moon is an “attractive” option that could allow the U.S. space agency to phase in promising new technologies while inspiring the American public at regular intervals along the way.

“You utilize lunar exploration, utilize visits to asteroids, whether it’s robotic or human,” Bolden told Space News Nov. 5, referring to the so-called Flexible Path option detailed in an October report by the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, which the White House chartered in May to reassess NASA’s manned exploration goals.

“That’s what makes it attractive to everybody,” he said. “That’s the one good thing about it. It is not a lunar program, and it’s not a Mars program. It allows you to go to different destinations as you see the capabilities arise.”

Bolden’s comments come as he and other senior administration officials consider the findings of the committee, which was led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine. In its report, the Augustine committee found NASA’s Constellation program — a 5-year-old effort to develop spacecraft and rockets optimized for returning humans to the Moon — incompatible with the agency’s current budget. The report suggested alternatives to NASA’s so-called program of record, including the Flexible Path option that would put NASA on the road toward Mars by first visiting a series of locations in the inner solar system.

“We won’t have the ability to go to Mars for quite some time, because of the threat of radiation and other things, and so you’ve got to have things that you can do. And that’s why, in our particular case, we like to focus on one- and two-year centers,” Bolden said, referring to an element of the Flexible Path option that would make use of frequent demonstrations of NASA’s developing capabilities — such as cutting-edge aeronautics technologies or medical breakthroughs discovered on the international space station — as a means for the agency to engage the public.

“If you were to follow a Flexible Path, it affords you the opportunity to do things in one- and two-year centers that would keep the American public interested and keep things inspired,” he said. “If you’re trying to do something that is 10 years out, how long will you stay interested in it? And that’s what a Flexible Path does.”

Bolden made the remarks following a Nov. 5 ceremony to award a combined $1.6 million in prize money to the winners of the NASA-sponsored Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. In a speech during the event on Capitol Hill, Bolden singled out the Flexible Path approach in his remarks. After commending Mojave, Calif.-based Masten Space Systems and Rockwall, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace for their spirit and innovation, Bolden reminded the audience that such prizes are not about money.

“They spark innovation and help foster the creation of new businesses and partnerships,” he said. “For a relatively small amount of money, the U.S. government sees great return. The Augustine committee recognized the potential of these competitions by noting the possibility of using lander technology created by the Lunar Lander Challenge in the Flexible Path option.”

Bolden was referring to a section of the Augustine panel’s report that discusses a “hybrid” lander featured in all three variants of the Flexible Path option. The hybrid lander would replace the Altair Lunar Lander the agency has been working on since 2005. The report suggests NASA could develop the lunar lander’s ascent stage, while “the descent stage is assumed to be commercially developed, building on the growing industrial capability pursuing NASA’s Lunar Lander Challenge and the Google Lunar X-Prize,” the report states.

NASA and White House officials are said to be coalescing around the idea of dropping  long-duration stays on the Moon in favor of the Flexible Path option and sending astronauts on comparatively short missions to near Earth objects and the moons of Mars. But while Bolden said he is drawn to the variability such an approach could afford, he stopped short of giving it his official endorsement.

“I’m not saying that’s something I would recommend or anything,” he said. “But I do see some attractiveness in it for that main reason.”