Budget constraints will make it virtually impossible for NASA to conduct manned missions to the Moon or anywhere else beyond low Earth orbit in the years ahead. That was the sobering conclusion delivered to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama Aug. 14 by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norm Augustine, who chaired an expert panel tasked by the White House in May to generate options for the future of U.S. human spaceflight.
A former secretary of the U.S. Army who is often compared to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and former Intel Chief Executive Craig Barrett for his national leadership in technology, Augustine is one of a handful of aerospace industry veterans whose vision and insight are routinely sought by public leaders. In 2005 he chaired a panel that produced a National Academy of Sciences report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” which recommends ways to strengthen research and education in science and technology.
In 1990, he led a landmark study on the entire U.S. civil space program that recommended that NASA make science its top priority. The 1990 Augustine Commission report also endorsed then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, a plan to return astronauts to the Moon in preparation for missions to Mars that failed to gain traction in the U.S. Congress and was eventually abandoned.
That exploration goal was resurrected in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident and subsequently endorsed by Congress and by Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. NASA’s execution plan was controversial from the start, however, and the president’s budget projections raised further doubts about its viability. This led the White House to turn to Augustine, once again, for answers.
Augustine spoke with Space News staff writer Amy Klamper about his latest study and the space industry in general.
The White House gave you a daunting task when they asked that you lead a committee that would determine options for the future of U.S. manned spaceflight on a very compressed, 90-day schedule. What made you decide to take this assignment?
The fact is I care a great deal about America and I care a great deal about America’s space program. When I was asked to do this I didn’t hesitate. I am retired, I’m not looking for things to do, but I’m busier now than when I had a job. I think I can have more impact outside of government than inside. I spent 10 years in the government. You have certain freedoms when outside the government to say what you believe and not just speak the institutional position. And frankly, the 90 days appealed to me because this is the kind of subject that can take two or three years to do in-depth, and I didn’t want to devote two or three years, or even six months, to one topic like this. It’s been a very intense 90 days, but I prefer that.
Is there a way to design a human spaceflight program that can make advances despite shifts in direction from the White House?
In my mind, change should come only for the most compelling of reasons. And the burden of proof is on those who want to make changes to existing programs. Having said that, sometimes there are compelling reasons. And having said that, NASA has suffered for many years, and does so today, from a mismatch between goals that have been authorized, and the funding that’s been provided to reach those goals. That’s a very dangerous circumstance, particularly in an area as unforgiving as human space travel.
It’s been said that any program designed to get humans to the Moon will cost in the neighborhood of $100 billion. Would you agree with that?
That is not an unreasonable broad estimate. One of the frustrating things that I have learned is that there is not a continuum of interesting options that range from an inexpensive option to an aggressive option. Options tend to come in quantum jumps and if you only have 60 percent of the money, you can’t go 60 percent of the way to Mars. It’s a very frustrating factor. But you can’t put your toe in the water, you either have to jump in or stay out. The Moon program is just inherently expensive.
You’ve said that some of your assumptions about the issues at hand have changed since you started work leading this panel. Can you elaborate?
Many of us have changed our views on a number of topics, and some of us have changed them two or three times. We all came in trying not to have positions, but inevitably, having spent my life in this business, you have beliefs. Some have been confirmed, and some, once we’ve learned the facts, they’ve changed. One would be that I’ve developed a great deal more — and this is perhaps a surprising answer for me — I’ve developed a great deal more confidence in commercial spaceflight than I had at the beginning. I’ve always believed there was a great commercial role in the unmanned arena, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that applies to the human arena as well.
How confident are you that entrepreneurial spaceflight firms can deliver on their promises?
A lot comes down to judgment. Large companies can tend to be bureaucratic and process-bound. And small startup companies may not have that detriment. One of the reasons that large companies are fairly predictable is they are process-bound: They know how to make things work, and they stick to that. You don’t know that about startup companies. They each have an advantage, and one simply has to go cautiously. We used to say in the company where I worked that the best judge of future performance is past performance. So you give everybody the opportunity to perform and you see who performs and who doesn’t.
You have had the last two months to really look under the hood of NASA’s human spaceflight architecture, Constellation, including the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher. How is the program doing?
All aggressive technical programs have problems. I’ve never worked on one that didn’t. For example, Ares 1 has some problems. Some of those problems have not yet been solved. Most are of an engineering nature, as opposed to requiring new science. But some are of the type that it is difficult to predict how soon or how one would resolve them. I look back at the problem Apollo faced at this point in time. And the problems that Apollo faced in my mind were much more serious than what one sees with the existing program. But this is a new era with a new risk-taking mentality, so I’m not sure that’s relevant, but it’s interesting.
Acquisition reform is a topic that the Obama administration is addressing in its review of U.S. national space policy. What is the most critical issue facing military and civil space acquisition today?
There’s almost no one who is satisfied with the U.S. government’s acquisition process, yet the irony is we’ve still managed to build the best space systems and military systems in the world. But we should be getting a lot more for our money than we’ve been getting. The most recent study that just came out by Business Executives for National Security made a number of important recommendations that range all the way from fixing the requirements process to recognizing that one has to have reserves or margins when you start out on technological projects.
Do you see a need to reform the way the U.S. government conducts research and development?
Developing components of systems during systems development or tests is a very costly way to do that. Far better to develop components and when they’ve been proven go and develop them and put them into systems. That suggests a need for very strong technology programs, which are particularly vulnerable to budget pressures when they’re in the same funding bin as the major programs; so when the major program gets a cold, the technology program gets pneumonia. We’ve seen that happen at NASA. So it takes great discipline to continue to invest in technology programs that won’t pay off for five, 10, 15 years. But if you don’t do it, you end up having component failures that stop you in the midst of system development where the money burn rate is very high.
It seems both Congress and the White House are keen to reform the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) that govern exports of U.S. space technology. How much progress do you see being made in this area?
ITAR is one of the greater impediments to international programs that I’m aware of. Our group is very positive about international cooperation in spaceflight. For one reason, it helps share costs. Equally an important reason in this day and age, the U.S. no longer has a corner on this capability, so cooperation gives us access to technology we would not otherwise have. ITAR was designed for an era when the U.S. had a near-monopoly on the latest in technologies, and where one could control the transfer of information. Today, with telecommunications, DVDs, CDs, the Internet, Twitter, it’s just not possible. I think it’s easier to build high fences around very few things, rather than low fences around almost everything, which is what we’re doing today, and not very successfully.