The U. S. human space program has a number of assets:

1. The space shuttle, despite its detractors, is a highly capable vehicle for transporting humans and cargo to space. It has proved to be uniquely reliable and with proper attention could continue to be the workhorse for operating to and from Earth orbit for quite some time to come. Yes, it is expensive to operate, but replacing it with an equivalent system will require a large investment, and it will be difficult to reproduce its versatility for conducting spaceflight operations at a lower operating cost.

2. The international space station is a space laboratory created by the U.S. and its international partners at a high price. It is now operational to the point where it may be used for scientific and technological research enabled by the environment of zero gravity and a nearly perfect vacuum. With proper maintenance, the space station will be able to operate for a reasonably long time. We do not know the scope of maintenance that will be required as it ages, but it will most likely require a vehicle like the space shuttle to transport the large parts necessary to keep it productive. In addition, as experience is gained, it is probable that additional equipment will be required to support the experimental activity. Also, the number and rate of exchange of experimenters required to go to and from the space station is yet to be determined, and this too may well require a system such as the shuttle.

3. The Constellation program is envisioned to provide the next generation of vehicles to conduct human and other space activities involving the space station and a return to the Moon to conduct extended human exploration. NASA has been working on this program for four years and has spent about $10 billion designing, developing and testing the systems to conduct these activities. These include the Ares 1 launch vehicle; the Orion spacecraft to transport people into space; modifications at Cape Canaveral to launch Ares; the preliminary design and development of Ares 5, a new heavy-lift launch vehicle; and the vehicles that will eventually be used to land and live on the Moon.

4. All of these activities are the work of another important asset: a NASA-aerospace industry team of engineers and scientists that  has been built up over a number of years, and a relatively new group of NASA and industry personnel managing Constellation. The spectacular success of space activities such as the assembly of the space station and the repair of the Hubble Telescope is due to the outstanding groups of highly trained and motivated people assembled by NASA. Because of the long period since the shuttle’s development, considerable time and effort have been required to rebuild the engineering and manufacturing capability necessary to design, build and test these new machines. Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin spent substantial time and resources rebuilding this unique group in NASA and industry, and it has become a valuable asset for both ongoing work and the next generation of exploratory vehicles.

Six months ago, U.S. President Barack Obama appointed former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine to lead a review of NASA activities and goals, and to recommend a course for the U.S. space program. Mr. Augustine’s report was released to the president in October, and is now under review by NASA and the White House.

Probably the most important factor of the report is it clearly highlights that the Constellation program is seriously underfunded. The report suggests that another $3 billion be added to the NASA annual budget.

For NASA and the human spaceflight program, the report presented a number of significant and devastating conclusions and recommendations. Many of them are characterized in the report as “notional” rather than grounded on rigorous studies.

In about 45 days, the committee (with the help of the Aerospace Corp. as consultants on cost analysis) essentially proposed the cancellation of Constellation. It recommended that NASA replace the Ares 1 rocket with commercially designed and built vehicles. It proposed that NASA invest approximately $5 billion in this new industry, and suggested that this approach will produce a safe, reliable and sufficient set of machines to carry humans and supplies to the space station on a schedule superior to the Ares 1 vehicle development cycle.

The Augustine committee recommended the immediate development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle to be used in a number of space operations that would bring about the capability to initiate missions to exotic locations such as satellites of the planets, Lagrange points and other bodies in the solar system, and the eventual landing of humans on Mars. It also noted that the heavy-lift launch vehicle might need to be accelerated in schedule to be used as a replacement for Earth orbit launches of humans and cargo should the commercial effort it suggested fail.

The committee also recommended that a strong NASA oversight group be formed to ensure that commercially developed systems are capable, reliable and safe. It believes that with proper financial and technical support from the U.S. government, the systems it recommends have a high probability of success, would be less expensive to maintain and operate, and  would lead to a new and flourishing space industry.

If the Augustine committee’s recommendations are followed, NASA will suffer a devastating loss in personnel. The momentum that has built up in the space program in recent years will be severely curtailed because of the reduction in program content. Aspiring young engineers and scientists seeking positions at NASA will be sorely disappointed because of the ensuing lack of opportunities. These facts alone are ample reason to forgo the committee’s advice.

The suggestion that commercially developed launch vehicles can replace the Ares 1 rocket is ill advised. The vehicles being developed under the NASA-supported Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiatives are yet to be proven and would require significant modifications and improvements to meet the man-rating requirements of human spaceflight. These modifications would be complex and expensive, and would bring about severe delays. The test programs required to prove the flight-worthiness of these machines may well be the Achilles’ heel of the whole program. Further, the belief that a NASA oversight group could bring about the solution to all of these issues shows, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of what is required to design and develop machines to carry humans into space.

COTS is a good program and should be allowed to develop at its own pace. Given time and experience, these vehicles may 

well provide the U.S. with a competitive set of launch vehicles and a new and budding industry. However, the sudden imposition of NASA requirements to deal with the safety and reliability of human spaceflight and the attendant demands of schedule may kill the COTS program.

In addition, the suggestion that the NASA budget supply $5 billion to support these systems is contrary to the basic idea of “commercial” space development, which is that seed money from NASA together with private capital should be used to finance these companies. If these vehicles are to be subsidized by the U.S. government, that subsidy should not be a burden to NASA. At the same time, NASA technical and management support could be used to aid these companies.

I must make another point in regard to the program content and direction suggested by the Augustine committee, where sorties into deep space and eventually to Mars are made to sound as if they should be considered as near-term goals. This view is in contrast to every study that has been done by NASA and other learned groups, which point out that a mission to Mars requires considerable new technology. Most crucially, new technology is required for power and propulsion to replace chemical propulsion systems and solar arrays now in use. Until this issue has been resolved by the necessary research and development, the goal of the Constellation program of returning humans to the Moon for scientific research and learning to live on another planet is a challenging yet much more realistic objective. It will provide a proper steppingstone to the exploration of more distant places. This is particularly true if the funds are limited in the near term.

Therefore, NASA should essentially stay the course that has been pursued for the past several years. It makes good common sense to preserve and continue the use of the present NASA assets. Specifically, NASA should:

  • Continue to operate the space shuttle until a suitable replacement is available, and initiate a study to consider a modernization program aimed primarily at reducing the operating costs.
  • Operate and maintain the international space station until it ceases to be economically reasonable and scientifically productive.
  • Continue to push forward with orderly haste to accomplish the goals set forth by the Constellation program.
  • Initiate an aggressive research and development program aimed at the technology required to make space exploration to Mars and other deep-space objectives rational and affordable.
  • Estimate a realistic set of budget requirements for the total NASA program based on the above goals and the other elements and goals of the agency.

Christopher C. Kraft is former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.