The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

lunar lander illustration
If NASA is to return to the Moon, it will likely require a major overhaul of policy, plans, and budgets. (credit: NASA)

Which way is up?

<< page 1: the view from the Hill

The heretic and the canon

Paul Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, led off the second panel discussion, on science and international relations. (His presentation materials can be downloaded here.) Spudis started by listing what he considered to be the “four canons of the faith” of human spaceflight. They are:

  • Mars is the ultimate destination
  • heavy-lift is a requirement
  • it is necessary to get the public excited
  • there is no problem at NASA that money cannot fix

In Spudis’ view, Mars is not the only destination, but merely one among many possible destinations. The real object of human spaceflight “is to get out there to do whatever we want to do out there.” He said that the Moon was an obvious first destination because “it’s there, it’s useful.” The goal for a human lunar program should be to “arrive, survive, and thrive.”

Space is no longer new, Spudis said, but that is not a problem “unless you’re trying to build a program that depends upon public relations.”

Spudis said that a fundamental premise of the Vision for Space Exploration was that NASA was not going to receive a major budget increase. The assumption was that the budget would be flat. Because of this, the agency should have designed a program that was composed of small, individual steps, building upon each other. “You can fill a swimming pool with a dripping hose,” he said, “it just takes a long time.” (Author’s note: although it was on his list, Spudis did not discuss heavy lift.)

With regards to the requirement for public support, Spudis said that he remembers that a lot of people whined and complained during the Apollo 11 landing—not simply the missions that came after it, but during the first and most important Moon mission. He added that we live in a fundamentally different environment today. Space is no longer new. But that is not a problem “unless you’re trying to build a program that depends upon public relations.”

Spudis said that “all four canons of the faith” are in the Augustine report. “Like Apple Computer, we need to ‘think differently’ about space.” He concluded by saying “My objective is to move humanity into outer space. How do you do that? By living off the land.”

Find another rock

The next speaker was former astronaut Tom Jones. Jones talked about the possibility of an asteroid mission to a near-Earth object (NEO). (His presentation materials can be downloaded here.) He said that there are multiple opportunities to visit NEOs and gave the example of asteroid 1999AO10. He said that the asteroid could be reached with only seven kilometers per second of delta-V, compared to 10 kilometers per second delta-V required for a Moon landing. The key difference is that reaching the asteroid would take five months, compared to only a few days to reach the Moon.

Jones said that there are several reasons why it would be a good idea to send astronauts to an NEO. One is survival-related. (Presumably he meant the threat of NEOs to life on Earth, but he did not elaborate.) Another reason is to gain a new kind of science return by visiting an ancient, unaltered surface. He also said that such a mission would increase the human spaceflight experience base. He added that asteroids are resource-rich, including volatiles. “Water is going to be like gold in space,” Jones said.

Jones disagreed slightly with Spudis’ comment about public opinion. Although he was not directly contradicting Spudis, he said that he believes that public engagement is important for the human space program.

In response to a later question about how the astronaut corps feels about the debate over the Moon versus other potential targets, Jones said that the destination is not really the deciding factor. Instead, the astronauts want to believe that they are part of a long-term goal. He said that was not true for the shuttle program.

Internationalizing exploration

The next speaker was John Logsdon, who is currently professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute. (His presentation materials can be downloaded here.) Logsdon talked about the past and potential future of the International Space Station. He said that the Augustine Committee’s comments about extending the ISS out to 2020 were not a surprise. In regards to plans to end the American commitment to ISS in 2016, he said “It was never a real decision anyway, it was a budget artifact.”

“We were under the impression for more than five years that there was a commitment from the US president to go back to the Moon. Where are the United States now about this commitment?” asked Dupas.

Logsdon then recalled how the space station originally became international. He said that although most people familiar with the start of the program remember that Ronald Reagan gave a speech calling for international partners in the space station program, what few people realize was that Reagan provided NASA administrator James Beggs with an airplane and a mandate to fly around the world seeking to sign up partners. Reagan also gave a follow-up speech reiterating his decision. “There was a presidential commitment that was then repeated both by presidential envoy and by the president himself.” (Author’s note: Logsdon did not mention the obvious contrast to the Vision for Space Exploration, which did not include any presidential follow-up commitment.) Logsdon then recounted the history of how the Russians were invited into the ISS program, noting that it was originally a Russian idea.

“Can we repeat something like that?” Logsdon asked. He then postulated how it might happen again. He showed a quote from a July 16, 2009 speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton where she said, “We will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world.”

Logsdon said that he could foresee the Obama administration expanding ISS cooperation and calling for an international effort on future human exploration. The ISS program could include China and India. Such a space policy would align well with the administration’s broader policy goals. In response to a question about the realism of including China, with its antagonistic actions and its human rights record, in the ISS program, Logsdon replied that he did not think that any plan to broaden the ISS program could ignore China.

He concluded by asking a rhetorical question: if the president were to endorse such a program, “would it set us on a productive path forward?”

A personal view from Europe

Alain Dupas, a senior advisor for aerospace for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, and the Director of Strategic Studies at the Paris-based College de Polytechnique, presented his views on the Augustine Committee’s recent report. (His presentation materials can be downloaded here.)

The committee’s conclusions, in his view, are troubling. “We were under the impression for more than five years that there was a commitment from the US president to go back to the Moon. Where are the United States now about this commitment?” he asked, adding that if the United States changes that commitment, it will be a sign that the nation is not serious about space. It is not a positive message that the United States spends money and then changes its mind.

Dupas also added that Europeans considered it somewhat bizarre that the United States even contemplated abandoning the ISS soon after completing it.

Dupas said that Europe currently spends about 15% of its space budget on human spaceflight compared to over 50% in the United States. Dupas pointed out that Europe now has a budgetary line for human spaceflight.

For Europe, right now the most pressing issue regarding human spaceflight is servicing the ISS after the Shuttle is retired. He then explained the current state of European human spaceflight planning. For example, Europe does not plan to field a cargo return vehicle before 2017. A human low-Earth orbit access vehicle is not being contemplated before 2025. And right now there is no plan to accelerate these programs.

The view from industry

The third panel of the morning was on security and commerce and was led by Brett Alexander, of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. (His presentation slides can be downloaded here.) Alexander said that he had been working for the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House during the Columbia accident and the subsequent accident investigation. He had helped draft the Vision for Space Exploration as a result. He explained that, “For 30 years we heard that all we needed was a president to articulate a vision and that we would be off and running.”

Alexander said that one of the main tenets of the presidential policy statement was commercial access to low Earth orbit and government operations beyond low Earth orbit. “That was quickly forgotten after Administrator Griffin came in,” he said. Alexander acknowledged that government is the only real customer for human access to low Earth orbit and added that industry takes safety very seriously and knows that NASA will be monitoring it closely every step of the way. He said that the EELV currently has multiple flights demonstrating its reliability and will have even more before humans are placed atop the vehicle.

Alexander finished by saying that the current issue facing the administration is not whether to choose Ares 1 or commercial launch vehicles, it is whether to choose Ares 1 or the International Space Station.

The view from the left right

Eric Sterner, a former Republican House Armed Services Committee staffer and currently a fellow at the Marshall Institute, was the next speaker. He was pressed into service when Denise Edwards, from the Office of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (who had given Norm Augustine a grilling during the House Science and Technology Committee a few weeks before) was unable to attend.

“For 30 years we heard that all we needed was a president to articulate a vision and that we would be off and running,” said Alexander.

Sterner addressed the role of international cooperation in space. He disagreed with John Logsdon, saying that in his experience, cooperation in space stemmed from the political environment and could not cause changes, which he considered to be the tail trying to wag the dog. He also added that “when you start importing partners, you are importing their decision-making processes and uncertainties, and their budgetary conflicts.” He also asked how the United States would deal with the proliferation problems and noted that space “is part of the carrot and stick consideration for the State Department and Congress.”

Sterner said that when he worked for the Armed Services Committee, “space was an afterthought,” an issue that barely came up. He cautioned that “When you look at the Augustine committee and you look at space, you really have to think about them from the perspective of people who really don’t care about the space program.”

The demise of the 800-pound gorilla

Robert Read, of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, next spoke about a study he had conducted on the solid rocket motor industrial sector (available here). No matter what the Obama administration decides concerning the Shuttle and the Ares 1, it will have a profound effect upon America’s solid propellant industrial base. (Read’s slides can be downloaded here.)

Read listed the reasons why solid propellants are important to the Department of Defense. The first is responsiveness. “Turn the key and it goes,” he said. Solids are also stable, storable, and have low maintenance requirements. He said that when the DoD took a look at the industrial base in the 1990s it was in decline. In the mid-1990s the country had five companies involved in solid propellant production. They have now consolidated to only two. However, there has not been a subsequent reduction in the number of facilities involved in the production.

He then made a rather startling comment: “NASA, in terms of solid propulsion, is the 800-pound gorilla.” Each Shuttle stack uses up the solid propellant equivalent of ten Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or seventeen Minuteman III ICBMs. The problem for the DoD is that “we’re always at a kind of bare bones bottom” in terms of production, he said. As a result, relatively small decisions can frequently result in major problems—and major costs—for the DoD.

Read emphasized that the industrial base issue was not simply a matter of producing the propellant. He said that what made the situation complex and difficult to manage was the “large system of sub-tier suppliers and niche providers.” This includes things such as liners for solid motor casings and other obscure products.

He recounted how a few years ago a small company was going to move its operations from Texas overseas. The company’s motivation was that 95% of its business was commercial and the government accounted for only 5% of its business. But moving its manufacturing overseas would have required the government to recertify all of the company’s components, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the DoD, and ultimately the American taxpayers. Fortunately for the government, environmental issues pertaining to the company leaving Texas made it too expensive for the company to move its operations overseas.

According to Read, the recent cancelation of the kinetic kill vehicle was already having an impact on the solid propellant industrial base. He said that currently his office was anticipating several ongoing policy studies having a future impact on the industrial base. These included the administration’s response to the Augustine committee, DoD program decisions (such as those pertaining to citing ABM missiles in Europe), and the nuclear posture review and the ballistic missile defense review.

Another view from industry

The last speaker was John Karas of Lockheed Martin. Karas noted that the current Constellation program did not originally have a goal of being the cheapest or fastest method to achieve the lunar landing objective. Rather, the program was structured in such a way as to help NASA acquire capabilities to enable the agency to be a smarter buyer in the future.

Karas’ comments in some ways contrasted with those of Tom Young earlier in the morning. Whereas Young, who had run or served on several independent review commissions in the latter 1990s that determined that lack of government oversight had led to expensive failures, Karas advocated speeding up the current program by reducing oversight.

“What separates the United States from the rest of the world is our heavy launch capability,” Karas said. The United States “has the infrastructure to go big,” but this capability will atrophy if it is not maintained.

Karas also spoke about the transition from the Shuttle to Constellation, noting that about half of the current industrial capability will be lost during the transitional period. He said that his company should have 500 people working on the Orion spacecraft right now, but due to budget constraints at NASA they had only half that number.

Regarding one of the Augustine Committee’s options, Karas stressed that it is important to pick a destination and a timeframe. The lack of either makes it hard to maintain leadership.

He also spoke briefly about heavy lift. “What separates the United States from the rest of the world is our heavy launch capability,” he said. This is important. The United States “has the infrastructure to go big,” but this capability will atrophy if it is not maintained.

Karas also warned that slipping the availability of the Orion any further could result in losing the capability for the government to conduct human spaceflight. He added that capability was being lost right now. “I’ll be laying off another 200 people in October at Michoud.”

But it was not simply layoffs that were at stake. Karas noted that 35% of the NASA and Lockheed Martin workforce can already retire tomorrow. One of the things that keeps them on the job is excitement and belief in the work they are doing. Take that away and they will leave. He said that the company has been able to attract younger workers because there is interesting and challenging work for them to do. Take that away and not only will they lose the older experienced workers who are already eligible for retirement, but also the younger ones who have just started at the company.

Karas finished by saying that he thinks it is important to strike a balance between commercial and government-contracted human spaceflight. He said that in his opinion the Augustine Committee was unclear about what should be commercial and what should be the Orion’s responsibility.

Quo vadis?

Anybody who was expecting the Augustine committee to settle the question of what should be the next step for American human spaceflight has undoubtedly been disappointed. Although none of the panelists stated it directly, one of the questions that was undoubtedly running through the minds of many in the audience was whether the Augustine committee actually produced the dreaded camel that General Lyles warned about.

If it was clear five years ago that we were eventually going to reach this point, it’s not clear now where we are going from here.

Some of the speakers’ comments certainly pointed to that. As a couple of speakers noted, the committee’s report was not greeted happily on Capitol Hill in part because it contained some inherent contradictions. For example, the report stated that there was no fundamental flaw with the current architecture and no clear indication that changing the architecture would be clearly superior, but this was coupled with what appeared to be an inclination to abandon the current architecture for something that has not been tried before. As members of Congress asked several weeks ago, if it was not broken, what was the explanation for abandoning it? No matter what your views on the subject, it is hard to deny that the report’s argument was free of confusion.

But as the panelists themselves demonstrated, these debates range (and rage) beyond the committee itself. On the one side there are people like Lockheed Martin’s John Karas and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation Brett Alexander, who might normally make odd bedfellows but who were both arguing for less direct government involvement in rocket development. On the other side were people like Tom Young and Scott Pace, warning that similar approaches have been tried in the last decade and a half and resulted in expensive failures.

The debates certainly are not going away. If it was clear five years ago that we were eventually going to reach this point, it’s not clear now where we are going from here.