Space Exploration – It’s Time for a Little Change

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There is a debate going on about our nation’s space exploration program. Where should we go? What rockets should we build? Can we do it for less money? These are questions to which U.S. President Barack Obama has asked the Augustine Commission, a panel led by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norman Augustine, to provide answers. Since these questions are not new, and the realities of program management and physics, have not changed in the five years since NASA’s Exploration Program was initiated, the answers to these questions are quite predictable:

  •  We should send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (Moon, near Earth asteroids, Mars and beyond);
  •  We need a heavy-lift launch vehicle to send sufficient equipment and supplies;
  •  We need a crew launch vehicle much safer than the space shuttle has proven to be; and
  •  We need the money that was initially promised by the last administration and authorized by two successive Congresses; that funding actually turns out to be what is required to get the job done right in a reasonable amount of time.

In 2004 the White House issued a policy directing NASA to retire the shuttle in 2010, to have a safer crew exploration vehicle flying by 2014, and to return to the Moon by 2020. For its part, the Congress directed NASA to get the crew exploration vehicle flying sooner, so as to minimize the amount of time the United States would have to rely on Russia to transport astronauts and supplies to the international space station.

NASA conducted a broad but thorough Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) in 2005 and after defining the initial architecture for shuttle replacement and lunar return, the agency continued to refine the plan to increase crew safety, reduce life cycle costs and improve the schedule. In fact, in 2006 a plan was presented to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that reduced the amount of money required through 2020 by over $4 billion, and delivered an operational Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2012. The OMB’s response was, in essence, “what part of 2014 did you not understand?” after which some $2 billion was removed from the early years of the Exploration Systems budget.

This continued a trend; in every year since the Exploration program was initiated, middle management at OMB has reduced the Exploration budget by billions of dollars, significantly affecting NASA’s ability to execute the safe and efficient plan that was called for by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, proposed by the president, and overwhelmingly endorsed by two Congresses, to keep our nation the leader in space exploration.

So what is the answer? Well, where is the problem? It’s not hard to find. Recently, Paul Shawcross from OMB was quoted as saying “in the absence of presidential direction, I make space policy.” And indeed he has; in the five years since the program began, he has managed (with some help from two congressional continuing resolutions and various earmarks) to short NASA more than $15 billion.

So the answer is simple: The president simply needs to pick up his BlackBerry and send OMB a note directing them to provide “change we can believe in” — in this case, the pocket change NASA needs to execute the Exploration program safely and efficiently. This type of leadership is exactly the change we need to provide the change we need.

How much change are we talking about? Well, it turns out that the change required to keep NASA’s Exploration program on track is less than 2 cents a day for every American. In today’s world it’s hard to find a better bargain: world leadership in space exploration, national pride, technology breakthroughs, solutions to many of the challenges we currently face here on Earth, and most importantly, the motivation of the next generation of explorers, researchers and engineers to provide a better life for generations to come. Not bad for two pennies a day. So that’s my 2 cents; it’s time to change how we do space exploration by providing a little change to do it right.

Scott “Doc” Horowitz is a former NASA associate administrator for exploration systems. He currently is an aerospace consultant.