Groundhog Day on Mars

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In the spring, a call went out from the White House to noted aerospace executive Norm Augustine to assemble a committee to take a look at NASA and in particular the human spaceflight program proposed by President Bush. The White House was concerned about the plan itself, how NASA was managing it, what impact it had on the rest of NASA’s programs and whether resources and programmatics were properly aligned. Perhaps most important, the White House was seeking blue-ribbon direction and political cover for making some hard choices about the future of America’s space program. Augustine answered the call and the challenge. I know, because I made the call. The year was 1990.

Fast forward 20 years and the administration of President Barack Obama this spring made a similar call to Norm Augustine and with a remarkably similar request, except the underlying program for human exploration under consideration was proposed by President George W. Bush in 2005 rather than by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. The Obama team now has the committee’s final report, and, not surprisingly, it has received the same answers we did in 1990: namely, that human spaceflight should be directed to space exploration, that the ultimate destination of that exploration should be the planet Mars, and that a program focused on a direct mission to Mars is too risky for the anticipated rewards and should be proceeded with intermediate steps, such as a manned mission to the Moon. Perhaps most ominously, the Augustine panel in 2009, just like the panel in 1990, found that there didn’t seem to be a strong enough rationale or national consensus for a program of human spaceflight to sustain the financing and focus for the decade or more it would take to achieve a sensible goal. But it was open to trying and hoped to be proved incorrect.

In today’s case, the administration has proposed a 10-year NASA budget that the committee found insufficient to execute the human spaceflight Constellation program underway at NASA. The committee found the current baseline program budget to be $3 billion a year short. In 1990, President Bush had proposed a one-time increase in NASA funding of 24 percent with sustaining increases of 10 percent per year in the out years to accommodate a new human space exploration initiative. In that case, the committee believed that Congress would not follow the administration’s lead and therefore would not sustain that exploration program. Regrettably, it was correct then and in all probability is correct now.

So where does that leave us and America’s civil space program? Exactly where it has been for the last 20 years: on a trajectory to launch, build and sustain an international space station largely stripped of its scientific infrastructure because of cost and schedule overruns, facilitated and reliant primarily on the remnants of a once robust and cutting-edge space shuttle fleet that is now obsolete and dangerous. Since the end of the Cold War, we simply have been unable to propose or sustain an acceptable follow-on to the station-shuttle construct. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a viable U.S. human spaceflight program for the future, but it does mean that no administration since the end of the Cold War has been able to define and execute one.

Realistically, absent another Cold War-like competition, the most promising scenario for successful human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit will involve a truly international effort that relies on an integrated international and independent management construct. Unfortunately, there are no good examples upon which to model. The U.S.-led international space station has left many partners bruised and suspicious of subordinating national treasure and pride to U.S. program management. The European Space Agency, which coordinates and aligns the activities of several independent national space activities, such as the French space agency CNES and the German Aerospace Center, is not much of a better template, as years of experience has shown parochialism and equity management to trump efficiency and accomplishment time and again.

What is needed is an international space consortium where nations contribute critical pieces of technology and infrastructure based on demonstrated capabilities, most advantageous geographical location, level of resource commitment and embedded technology base, managed by an independent all-star team that is nation-blind, dedicated to success, free to make decisions without regard to nationality, and, perhaps most important, ad hoc — it must be disbanded when the mission has been accomplished, whether that takes 10 years or 30 years. It would be hard and would mean abandoning national pride and probably most international protocols; no one from state departments, foreign offices or ministries of foreign affairs should be allowed to participate in the planning and agreements. It should exist for this purpose and this purpose alone, absolutely insulated from geopolitical influences.

This may seem Utopian and highly unrealistic, and it probably is. But my guess is that without it or something like it, we will still be talking about Mars in 2030 and no closer to it. Unless, of course, an asteroid is found to be on a certain collision path with Earth within 15 years, and all of this will seem simple and logical.

 

Mark Albrecht was the executive director of the White House National Space Council from 1989 to 1992 and was the principal adviser on space to President George H.W. Bush. He is completing a book on the consequences of the end of the Cold War for the
U.S.
space program.