White House Handed Options for NASA’s Post-Space Shuttle Future

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WASHINGTON — Add more money to NASA’s budget or confine the U.S. space agency to low Earth orbit for another generation. That is the essence of the choices facing U.S. President Barack Obama after a blue-ribbon panel tasked with determining options for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program delivered its findings to the White House Sept. 8.

Led by retired Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norman Augustine, the White House-appointed panel provided senior decision-makers in the Obama administration five broad options for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Of these, three scenarios entail missions beyond low Earth orbit within the next 20 years — all three would require giving NASA a sizeable funding boost over the next five.

“The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources,” the summary report states, adding that, regardless of the path ultimately selected, “it must be matched with the resources needed for execution.”

Although the Augustine committee put forward two options that fit within the spending plan Obama put forth in May to keep NASA’s budget hovering around $18.6 billion through the middle of the next decade, neither scenario permits NASA astronauts to venture beyond Earth’s immediate vicinity within the next 20 years.

Under the first so-called “budget constrained” option, NASA would deorbit the international space station (ISS) in 2016, conduct the first flights of the Ares 1 rocket and Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle about a year later, and put the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket critical to NASA’s Moon plans on a slower development path. Under this scenario, the report says, “Ares 5 is not available until the late 2020s, and worse, there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever.”

The other option that fits within Obama’s currently proposed NASA budget profile entails canceling Ares 1, building a less capable Ares 5, and keeping the space station in service through 2020 tended by commercially operated spacecraft enticed into the market by the lure of NASA business. The so-called Ares 5 Lite would enter service in the late 2020s but have nothing to launch.

“The constrained options would appear to be non-starters,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here. 

“For the amount of money saved, the damage to the nation’s space capabilities is disproportionate.”

The Augustine committee gave the Obama administration three broad choices that entail sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit — either to the Moon or other spots — by the mid-2020s. All of these options require boosting NASA’s annual budget to around $22 billion by 2014 followed by 2.4-percent yearly increases.

If the White House is willing to ask Congress for the additional money, the committee concluded, NASA could still finish Ares 1 and Orion — albeit two years past the current 2015 target — and build an Ares 5 in time to put astronauts on the Moon in the mid-2020s. However, this scenario only works from a budget standpoint if the White House is willing to deorbit the space station in 2016 — just five years after finally completing assembly of the $100 billion facility in the works since 1984 — and put the $3 billion in annual operating expenses into Orion, Ares and other exploration hardware instead. John Logsdon, a space policy expert with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum here, said that while the committee put forward scenarios that entail deorbiting ISS in 2016, it also made clear it does not think that would be a good idea.

“The Obama White House rather clearly wants to broaden international partnerships in space, and recognizes that a premature end to ISS operations would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to engage current ISS partners in future exploration activities,” he said. “So deorbiting ISS in 2016 seems to be a non-starter as future plans for human spaceflight are developed.”

Indeed, most of the scenarios put forward by the Augustine committee all keep ISS flying through 2020 and drop Ares 1 in favor of relying on commercial crew services NASA would coax into existence through programs building on the agency’s current efforts to foster development of commercial cargo systems.

These scenarios also all assume NASA will need to keep the space shuttle in service at least until the spring of 2011 and require NASA to budget accordingly.

Where the exploration-focused scenarios differ is in destination and the heavy-lift vehicle NASA would need to get there.

One option, for example, maintains NASA’s lunar focus, keeps the space shuttle flying through 2015, and fields a heavy-lift vehicle that makes greater use of shuttle hardware and infrastructure than Ares 5. A variation on the committee’s “Moon First” option would retire shuttle in 2011 and build a less-capable Ares 5, dubbed Ares 5 Lite.

If the White House decides to drop the Moon and set NASA’s sights on destinations such as near Earth asteroids, the gravitationally stable Lagrange points, and Mars flybys — an option dubbed the “Flexible Path” by the committee — than NASA’s choice for heavy lift includes Ares 5 Lite, a shuttle-derived system, and a commercial rocket that leverages the United States’ investment in the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets developed under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

“I think what’s relevant is what the committee likes, and they clearly liked the Flexible Path,” Logsdon said, noting the amount of detail the summary gave to the deep-space scenarios. “The Committee concluded that the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system,” the summary report states. “This is an ambitious goal, but one worthy of U.S. leadership in concert with a broad range of international partners.”

Regardless of the administration’s plans for the Moon or beyond, sources with close ties to the administration say Obama is likely to embrace the committee’s endorsement of outsourcing NASA operations in low Earth orbit and guaranteeing a government market for the burgeoning U.S. commercial space sector.

“If we craft the space architecture to provide opportunities to this industry, there is the potential — not without risk — that the costs to the government would be reduced,” the summary report states.

“There is a fair amount of perfectly reasonable debate about whether launching crew should be a government service or a commercial service,” Logsdon said. “The committee points out that the commercial option carries with it risks. There has to be a judgment of whether those risks are acceptable or not.”

With the Augustine panel expected to complete its full-length report by the end of this month, Obama is not expected to announce a decision in time to amend NASA’s 2010 budget. But observers say he still must work quickly — within the next two months — to formulate a plan and fund it accordingly in the 2011 budget request that will be submitted to lawmakers in the spring, and which NASA and White House budget officials are now in the process of drafting.

“There is very little time to pass an amendment to restore the $3 billion reduction made to the [fiscal] 2010 budget proposed earlier this year,” Pace said. “The committee’s work raised a lot of issues requiring deeper thought but without sufficient time for NASA to create a program plan before November [fiscal] 2011 budget decisions.”