Profile: Paul Damphousse, Executive Director, National Space Society

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Paul Damphousse had been a U.S. Marine for 22 years when he retired as a lieutenant colonel in December to become a full-time space civilian. When he took the reins of the National Space Society Jan. 1, Damphousse had been a member of the Washington-based advocacy group for 13 years and sat on its board for two. He has known for a long time that he wanted to be involved with space.

“I’ve always had this burning passion for space,” the former combat pilot said. “I’ve known from a very, very young age what I’ve wanted to do.”

Damphousse started his transition from air to space midway through his military career, when he left the cockpit of the Marines’ CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift transport helicopter to get his master’s degree in astronautical engineering. A tour of duty with U.S. Space Command followed, after which Damphousse took a break from space and rejoined a Marine Corps helicopter squadron in late 2003 for the first of two combat tours in Iraq.

In September 2009, while still on active duty, Damphousse was detailed to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s Washington office as a NASA fellow, advising the  Florida Democrat on civil and national security space issues. His yearlong fellowship began with the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee giving President Barack Obama the green light to pull the plug on Constellation, NASA’s effort to replace the space shuttle with separate crew and cargo launch vehicles and an Orion capsule capable of flying space station sorties and deep-space missions.

By the time Damphousse returned to the National Security Space Office to finish out his military career, Obama had signed into law the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that essentially resurrected two key elements of Constellation: a rebranded Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle optimized for deep-space missions, and the Space Launch System, a human-rated heavy lifter built from space shuttle components.

Damphousse said his time on Capitol Hill gave him a good look at the inside baseball of Washington space policy advocacy — and what he saw led him to conclude that the National Space Society (NSS) was not living up to its potential. Damphousse spoke recently with Space News staff writer Dan Leone.

 

Why do you say that NSS had not been fulfilling its potential?

There were a lot of places where there could have been push and pull on the policy, or how things came out on the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. We could have done a better job of actually being involved in that. I came aboard Sen. Nelson’s office right after the Augustine Committee released its report. The president signed the 2010 Authorization Act the day before I left the office. So I got to see some of the most dramatic 12 months in NASA’s recent history.

 

What should NSS have been doing while the NASA Authorization Act was still being drafted?

Educating the members. The members’ time is stretched very, very thin, and there is a handful of members who really have a passion for space and have an understanding of it. And the rest of the members sort of look to those folks to ask what their opinion is. It’s a matter of educating the members to the benefits of a sustainable, consistent space program in the form of jobs, in the form of science, engineering, technology and mathematics education, in the form of achieving our national space goals. Too often we can be led down a path that may serve some short-term needs but may not serve us as well in the long run.

 

Is the U.S. space program on such a path today?

That remains to be seen. That battle has been fought and the NASA Authorization Act has been passed and the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle are now the programs of record. It’s not our place to try to reverse something that’s already the law. But what we can and will do is make sure that we are watching those programs such that we don’t want them to go over budget. We don’t want them to slip in schedule. And we certainly do not want them to start siphoning off other programs. At the same time, we want to see NASA pursuing parallel courses, as far as technology development, such that if a major program does get into trouble and does end up getting canceled by a future Congress, we won’t find ourselves in a position where we don’t have anything to fall back on.

 

What programs does NSS want to see NASA working on then?

There has to be an infrastructure in space. The international space station could very well be the first piece of that. Other pieces can be other private space stations; on-orbit fuel depots, which is something we advocate very, very strongly that NASA be doing; cis-lunar transport systems; and potentially cryogenic fuel depots out at the libration points, which if you really look at it may be more advantageous than actually putting depots in low Earth orbit. Having an architecture in space is really how we’re going to establish that beachhead and push off and do real beyond low Earth orbit exploration. The single program worked well for the Apollo program, to demonstrate that we could get to the Moon. But as we saw, it was very expensive. If you have a single-string program and if that program runs into trouble and the whole thing comes crashing down, you’re somewhat back to square one.

 

That sounds like an argument for technology development and deployment programs, which are usually raided to pay for other things during the budget process.

I don’t necessarily agree. If I develop the technology to have a cryogenic fuel depot in low Earth orbit right now, there would be a whole host of things that I could use that thing for. I could refuel an upper stage; I could refuel a cycler going back between Earth and low Moon orbit. I understand the argument that if you’re doing technology for technology’s sake that it could get picked off. But if you have a plan that has all of these different pieces in it, and one piece gets picked off, the whole plan doesn’t come crashing to an end.

 

What role would NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program play in the infrastructure NSS envisions?

Our position is that commercial holds the potential of really being a game changer. It’s obviously going to be an area that’s going to get a lot of attention this year just as it did last year, where the money that’s proposed by the president was eventually cut in half through the negotiation between the Senate and the House. We’re probably set up for a similar debate this year. One thing I’ve said is that the intent for the last several years has always been that commercial would take that burden of low Earth orbit away from NASA and allow NASA to then push out to the next frontier. If we have NASA remaining in low Earth orbit with the limited resources that we have, we’re just not going to have the resources to push on beyond.

 

Does the NSS support funding the Commercial Crew Program at the $830 million level proposed in the president’s 2013 budget request?

At this point, you can flip the conversation around and say, “If you take money out of the program now, you will be forced very soon to sit down and negotiate more Soyuz seats with the Russians, because we have to service the international space station.” That’s really where we are right now with the commercial program. We retired the space shuttle fleet when the international space station was complete. We did manage to get two extra shuttle flights added in 2011 — I had a hand in that when I was working at Nelson’s office — but because of a lot of things that have happened, we didn’t have a system waiting there to take over the responsibility of servicing the station. So we start cutting into the Commercial Crew Program now at our own peril, if our goal is to have a U.S. domestic capability of servicing the international space station.

 

Some lawmakers have suggested the Commercial Crew Program would be cheaper and more likely to succeed if all of the competitors formed a single team charged with building a single system. Do you agree?

I would disagree. One is not the answer. One is not competition. Trying to skinny down the field to as small a number as possible as quickly as possible sort of negates the whole idea of competition. I think the money that’s going to be invested into all of these companies will come back to us in spades. And if a company does get eliminated, the technologies they develop may get bought by another company and will strengthen that company that continues.