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ARM concept
With NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission focused on returning a boulder from an asteroid to cislunar space, the “flexible path” appears to be more of a straight line back to the Moon. (credit: NASA)

The “Flexible Path” made straight

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Since the completion of the Apollo program, the search has been on for the next logical step in the human exploration of outer space, at least as conceived by the United States. The space station was approved as a concept in 1984 as the next logical step, but that rapidly turned into a cul-de-sac rather than a way forward as the construction of the space station (now known as the International Space Station, or ISS) encountered many delays and near-death experiences. In 1993, the crisis came to head when the US House of Representatives came within one vote of cancelling the station.

The Apollo program is the burden NASA currently must bear: a golden age just beyond their reach.

That was reconfigured into what became the ISS, which went through several other crises before the basic arrangements were finally put in place. In doing so, the ISS fell off the US path to further human space exploration, to the point that the George W. Bush Administration set the ISS to close down in 2016, at least in terms of US participation. The Space Shuttle program was scheduled to shut down in 2010 (it ultimately did so in 2011.) That set the stage for the next iteration in US human space exploration in the form of the Constellation program. The plan was to fund the new program by transferring the funds used for the ISS and shuttle to support the Constellation program. This appeared plausible and sensible, but political reality got in the way.

Current reality

The administration of President Barack Obama, as is usual with new administrations, had its experts examine the question of where the US space exploration should go. That review basically indicated that Constellation was broken, not necessarily because of technical flaws (although there were concerns) but rather from a lack of political and therefore budget support. This spelled out a recipe for ultimate failure as NASA would struggle to meet the funding necessities for keeping the program on task. That would, in turn, lead to budget shortfalls being rolled forward to a point of total nonviability, with no political force on the horizon that would make up the deficits.

The space science community politically was protected by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a key member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. This meant there were no plausible scenarios through which space science funds could be funneled instead to the Constellation program as had occurred during the shuttle’s development.

All of this also occurred in the context of the Great Recession, which dampened any congressional interest in funding a large-scale space program in the absence of any dire necessity. Efforts to generate a space race between the US and China fell on deaf ears: advocates were shouting into a political vacuum. This was reinforced by the reality that the Space Shuttle was being shut down with no real sign that the public or Congress was concerned about the prospect of lacking US crewed access to orbit on US vehicles.

The Augustine Committee was charged with assessing and suggesting options that the president might consider with regards to US human space exploration. The Constellation program died on the altar of congressional indifference, since NASA program supporters were split between advocates for space science (meaning mostly robotic missions) and human exploration proponents, both of whom lacked the political numbers and clout to generate the funding deemed necessary for success regardless of the objective.

Incremental funding has been the rule of the day with regards to NASA, once you get past the Apollo era and several crises. You see this most closely in the discussions over NASA’s relative share of the federal budget, which remains below one percent and is now drifting more toward a half a percent. Given federal budget growth, that remains a significant amount of money, but not close to the glory days of the 1960s. The Apollo program is the burden NASA currently must bear: a golden age just beyond their reach.

The “flexible path” described by the Augustine Committee in the fall of 2009 as the most productive way forward for the US human space exploration program was controversial from the start. The flexible path envisioned a series of steps toward exploring other planets, rather than proceeding in a linear fashion director toward Mars, or to the Moon and then Mars. This judgment meant that the Constellation program was cancelled while selected parts were cannibalized for the new effort. Going to the Moon as the next step beyond Earth orbit was dismissed as just doing the same thing over again. In fact, the operative assumption appeared for a time to be that the Moon would be done by other nations and the American private sector, just as low Earth orbit (LEO) was increasingly pushed toward the commercial sector in terms of resupplying the ISS, including transporting crews. All of this was critical for deciding where the US space exploration effort involving humans proceeds next.

The plan was multifaceted. First, develop the technologies that facilitate human exploration. This technology development effort was not designed for a specific mission or destination such as occurred for Apollo. Instead, the goal was developing a technological base that could be configured to accomplish a diversity of specific missions. The Orion crew vehicle was to be the workhorse carried into space by the new Space Launch System (SLS). Second, the flexible path projected that a series of sequential steps would lead to mission further out into space, ultimately leading to Mars and other celestial bodies.

This set off a continuing dispute in which former Constellation program supporters argued for a mission to the Moon. They argued that establishing and operating a base on the lunar surface would provide the long-duration missions necessary for conducting such missions beyond cislunar space. A Moon base would also facilitate further exploration of the lunar surface. That could lead research into the area of in situ provision of resources to sustain a human habitat. Such an approach is attractive in that one knows it can be done plus one can build on prior Apollo experience.

By in effect pulling back closer to cislunar space, the flexible path becomes almost a straight path to the Moon.

NASA instead argued that the Moon scenario was not persuasive. Rather, the official proposal, designated Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), initially settled on a mission to an asteroid: astronauts would spend significant time at whatever asteroid was designated as the target. Such an approach would provide experience in deep space, subject to the full effects of the space environment.

However, over time, the configuration of the mission has changed from going out to the asteroid for a long-duration mission, to corralling an asteroid and returning it to the region near Earth, to now plucking a small boulder from an asteroid and placing it in a lunar orbit. This scaling down of the ARM mission profile raises the question whether the Moon-first advocates have won the argument. The US missions will operate in the realm of cislunar space, not reducing the risk involved but allowing for the possibility of assistance in the event of an emergency. By in effect pulling back closer to cislunar space, the flexible path becomes almost a straight path to the Moon.

Later missions can reach out to Mars such as the recently proposed mission for orbiting Mars in 2033 (see “Doing humans to Mars on—and within—a budget”, The Space Review, April 6, 2015). Proponents of this approach project theirs as possible within likely NASA budgets. This is one of a diversity of proposed Mars expeditions with varying probabilities of success. All scenarios confront the thorny question of funding, there is not a government “sugar daddy” out there salivating at the opportunity to support such an effort.

A contingent future

The larger question as the Obama Administration enters its final years is whether the necessary funding will be available for the flexible path or any other path. Federal budget deficits have been reduced but significant political opposition to government spending continued unabated. NASA represents one small portion of discretionary spending, the most vulnerable segment of the federal spending. None of the potential presidential candidates for 2016 exhibits any real interest in the space program and NASA. This includes the two from Florida, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and Texas’s Ted Cruz. Space policy continues in its usual pattern as a third-tier priority behind the economy and national defense, followed by social programs. Even the most modest space initiative, the flexible path, is subject to congressional indifference and zeal for cutting extraneous expenditures. Threading the needle between shoals of congressional indifference and hostility will be NASA’s task over the next few years. This is normal politics as far as the space program is concerned.