Given the discord, uncertainty and angst surrounding the U.S. human spaceflight program, one might think Norm Augustine feels some regret about having chaired a 2009 study that influenced the White House decision to abandon NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program.
The former Lockheed Martin chief executive, who in retirement is frequently tapped to help government policymakers resolve vexing questions, feels no regret, sticking to the report’s argument that Constellation was financially unsustainable. He also holds fast to the belief that the commercial space sector is ready to take on the task of transporting astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.
But Augustine is nonetheless plenty worried about the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program, primarily because it is so expensive at a time when the U.S. government is under unprecedented pressure to reduce spending.
Augustine, who in 1990 chaired another influential study on the future of the broader U.S. space program, spoke with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
How would you characterize the state of NASA’s human spaceflight program?
In both commissions in which I was involved the principal finding was to be sure that whatever goals we set for the space program, including the human spaceflight program, were compatible with the funds that we intended to commit. And if we couldn’t afford to commit enough funds to do space programs properly then we should admit it and adopt lesser goals. It’s my personal belief that the program that the president has identified for human spaceflight is very reasonable. The issue will be whether we are prepared to fund it adequately, and from all I’ve seen I am not overly confident.
When you say reasonable are you referring to the president’s commercial spaceflight program, or that plus the heavy lifter and deep-space capsule that were mandated by Congress?
The program I have heard the president embrace was very close to what our 2009 report called the Flexible Path plan, which ultimately puts humans on Mars and along the way, every few years, achieved a major milestone — for example, human docking with an asteroid, going to a Lagrangian point, circumnavigating Mars, orbiting Mars, landing on one of Mars’ moons and eventually landing on Mars. It also entailed a strong commercial program. The reason for the commercial program is that NASA just doesn’t have enough money to provide trucking services to low Earth orbit.
Do we need a heavy-lift launch system to carry out a Flexible Path program?
It was the view of both the reports that I worked on that we indeed need a heavy-lift launch system.
Were you surprised when the president, in his 2011 budget request, requested no funding for a heavy-lift launcher?
I was surprised by that aspect of the budget request. And of course that subsequently changed, with him saying that we would develop a heavy-lift vehicle.
Given the status of NASA’s human spaceflight program, do you have any regrets about the 2009 report?
I don’t know of a word I would change today. We were specifically asked not to make a recommendation but rather to offer options, which we did. And as we evaluated the options some were obviously more attractive than others and they tended to be more costly than some of the others. We wanted to make a point that the Constellation program perhaps made sense when it started. But given year after year of budget cuts the Constellation program just no longer made any sense financially or in a mission sense.
Looking at today’s budget situation, do you feel vindicated in any way?
Not really. It’s a sense of disappointment that we spent so much effort on a program that as it turned out couldn’t be completed. I also feel a sense of disappointment about the shuttle although I think it was the right decision.
What do you see happening over the next 10-15 years?
I think the future of the space program, particularly the human space program, because it tends to be very expensive, is very much at risk. As I look at the nation’s economy in the years ahead, and America’s ability to compete on a global basis in that economy, absent some major changes, one would have to be pessimistic. And absent those major changes there’s not going to be much more money for space — there’ll probably be less. Space related to national defense is a little different. I can cite examples from personal experience as well as history of cases where we said we can’t afford another nickel for national security and some major event happens and the next day we’re spending three times that much and we find a way to do it. But space doesn’t tend to be that way. I think if you were a betting person, you would probably have to bet that China will go to the Moon before we go back. It doesn’t have to be that way but I think if you were to bet — and I don’t make this as a criticism of anybody; I’m looking at the financial realities — I think China’s more prepared to make that commitment than we are in this country.
What are the implications if China does that?
It obviously will speak volumes to China’s growing technical capability. If their goal is the Moon I personally wouldn’t assign it any overwhelming significance — it’s obvious what China’s doing and is capable of doing. Were I responsible for China’s space program, I would follow President Kennedy’s approach where he decided not to simply focus on low Earth orbit, which the Russians already had done, but rather take a giant step, specifically go to the Moon. The analogy for China’s space program today would be to land on an asteroid. That would really scare the Americans, whereas landing on the Moon won’t. The problem with that strategy is China must be well aware that when Russia put Sputnik in orbit it woke America up, in regard to its investments in science, in education and its space program. If China does not want to wake us up then it would be wise not to do anything too terribly dramatic.
Do you think we have a balanced civil space program right now?
I think we have had a reasonably balanced program in recent times and where we’re headed is going to depend almost entirely on what the Congress decides to do. I continue to believe that maintaining balance is critically important. Science is obviously very fundamental to all that we do in space but also to a large degree it’s the human spaceflight program that most inspires the public’s support.
What do you think about the overall state of the U.S. space industry?
The industry has suffered a double whammy wherein both the civil space program and the defense-related programs are under great duress at the same time, and in the past that’s generally not been the case. I think the industry — and I’m talking about the aerospace industry as a whole — is becoming perilously endangered as to its ability to compete in the world market in the years ahead.
How would you characterize the 2013 budget request for both the Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA?
I would characterize it as being extremely austere in both cases. With regard to DoD, the challenge is always to forecast the needs and we’ve learned that is extremely difficult to forecast because threats rise and fall very suddenly. With regard to the space business, our capability will atrophy while that of others will probably grow.
Wasn’t a decline in military space spending inevitable after 10 years of steep growth?
Spending in the DoD and the aerospace industry as a whole has always been cyclical. It’s basically the result of over-correction in both directions. The DoD budget is already undertaking a very major cut. It has hanging over it a draconian potential cut brought about by the fact that our nation’s defense is being held hostage by a Congress unable to make the tough decisions.
If you were king but still had to deal with today’s budget realities, what would the U.S. civil and military space programs look like?
That is a really tough question. The highest priorities I would give to spending would be for education, basic research and national security. If we do that, we could grow our economy to the point where we could afford a strong space program — and I kind of described it before — and I would do my best to assure we had a strong commercial program much as was done with the commercial airlines. If the government, for example, were to give a guaranteed contract to commercial companies to fly “x” number of times to orbit per year, that would give them a large enough base. A major restriction on what we can do in space is the cost of launching payloads. And it’s my belief that the only way we will see a quantum reduction in the cost of taking payloads into space will be when space tourism becomes a reality. I firmly believe that will happen, and at that point we’ll be able to do some really amazing things in space. But that unfortunately is a while away.