The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Obama at KSC
President Barack Obama at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010. Last week marked the fifth anniversary of his speech there that explained his space exploration vision. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A five-year checkup

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For most Americans, April 15 is not the happiest of days. As the deadline for submitting tax returns, it’s for many people a day of angst and anger, and perhaps a flurry of last-minute activity to file those returns—or, at least, an extension. No one likes April 15, it seems, except perhaps accountants and tax specialists, for whom the date marks the end of their busiest part of the year.

In the space community, though, there are mixed feelings about April 15. It was on April 15, 2010, that President Obama traveled to the Kennedy Space Center to make his first, and most likely only, speech on space policy. That speech was something of a corrective action to the rollout of NASA’s plans in its fiscal year 2011 budget proposal two and half months earlier, one that called for the cancellation of Constellation, funding of commercial crew development, and a new space technology initiative.

“Five years after the President laid out his vision, we’re seeing it come to fruition and, much like the images being beamed to Earth by Hubble, what we’re seeing is marvelous,” Bolden said last week.

Obama used that speech to put that budget proposal into a broader context desired by the industry—even if they didn’t necessarily like what he had to say. In that speech, Obama eschewed a return to the Moon (“We’ve been there before,” he said) in favor a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 and a human mission to Mars orbit by the mid-2030s. “And a landing on Mars will follow,” he added. “And I expect to be around to see it.”

So, five years after that speech that laid out, at the highest levels, NASA’s human space exploration strategy, how is NASA doing? The answer might well be, “It depends.”

Bolden’s optimism

NASA administrator Charles Bolden has a more optimistic view of NASA’s progress in the last five years. “Five years after the President laid out his vision, we’re seeing it come to fruition and, much like the images being beamed to Earth by Hubble, what we’re seeing is marvelous,” he said in a speech April 14 at the 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Bolden cited, as one example, the Orion spacecraft that served as the backdrop for Obama’s speech, which successfully flew on its first test flight last December. (Not mentioned was that Orion was revived just days before that 2010 speech, after originally being placed on the chopping block along with the rest of Constellation.) He also cited the development of the Space Launch System, although that emerged in the Congressional compromise later in 2010, months after the speech.

A more unqualified success might be the International Space Station. NASA’s plans prior to the Obama Administration called for ending the station as early as 2015. “In 2010, the President called for extending its life for five years,” Bolden said last week. “We’ve now extended it for ten.”

That’s a reference not just to an extension to 2020 that all five partners—NASA, ESA, JAXA, CSA, and Roscosmos—have agreed to, but a desire by NASA to extend its life through 2024. Last month, the new head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, endorsed such an extension, although there remains confusion about what Russia’s plans are: as recently as last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin said Russia would develop its own national space station by 2023, putting into question its commitment to the ISS.

The ISS has also been the hub of NASA’s efforts to develop a commercial space transportation industry through its commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. Orbital ATK and SpaceX have contracts to deliver cargo to the ISS (although Orbital is still recovering from an October launch failure), and Boeing and SpaceX have contracts to develop systems to carry astronauts to and from the ISS starting in late 2017.

Commercial crew in particular has been a lightning rod for controversy for the last five years, as some in Congress questioned the companies’ abilities to safely transport astronauts, as well as NASA’s funding requests for the program. While questions about capabilities have subsided, funding remains an issue on Capitol Hill, as NASA asked for more than a 50-percent increase in commercial crew funding in its 2016 budget request, to nearly $1.25 billion.

“I think that the path on which we are currently embarked, with two providers, maintains competition,” Bolden said. “I think if we downselected to one, it would not speed up the process at all.”

Bolden and other NASA officials have said several times since the release of the budget two and a half months ago that the funding level is based on the milestones in the contracts awarded last year to Boeing and SpaceX. “It is critical that we receive the funding requested for 2016, so that we can meet our 2017 target date and stop writing checks to the Russian Space Agency,” Bolden said in testimony before the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee April 16.

Bolden has previously warned that, if Congress comes up short in its funding of commercial crew, development of the vehicles will be delayed as NASA is forced to renegotiate milestones with the two companies. He rejected a proposal by one committee member, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH), to select just one company and put all of the funding on it in order to speed up work.

“I think that the path on which we are currently embarked, with two providers, maintains competition,” Bolden responded. “I think if we downselected to one, it would not speed up the process at all. It may even slow it down because then that one provider becomes the monopoly that dictates to me what it can or can’t do, and what it will and won’t do.”

Nonetheless, NASA is in the process of purchasing additional Soyuz seats to cover flights in 2018, as a hedge should commercial crew providers experience delays. “What has NASA seen so far in the continued development of our own crewed vehicles to justify paying Russia hundreds of millions of dollars for seats that should already be covered by US providers?” asked Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the commerce, justice, and science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a hearing also held April 16.

Bolden laid the blame back at the feet of Congress. “The primary reason is we’ve seen in the lack of commitment on the part of the Congress to fund the program at the amount requested,” he said. “We really need $1.2 billion in 2016 because this is a critical time for us to make 2017.”

Shelby, a longtime critic of commercial crew, didn’t sound convinced by Bolden’s call for funding. He noted NASA spent $1.9 billion on earlier phases of the program before awarding contracts to Boeing and SpaceX last September. “NASA continues to blame Congress for a lack of resources when it was NASA who chose to spend nearly $2 billion on competition,” he said.

Despite the ongoing debates about the level of funding, the support that NASA has been able to provide has been warmly welcomed by commercial ventures. “Our industry is more robust and competitive than ever before,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement issued on the five-year anniversary of Obama’s speech. “From all of us at CSF, we applaud President Obama and Congress’s commitment to securing US leadership in space and expanding our Earth’s economic sphere.”

Of ARM and Mars

While debate about commercial crew may have evolved from whether to do it to how much money it should receive, the future of Mars exploration—the long-term goal laid out in Obama’s 2010 speech—remains unsettled, along with what NASA has been billing as the next major step to get there, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).

NASA has been billing ARM as a key step as it moves beyond Earth orbit and, eventually, to Mars. ARM, the agency argues, will develop several key technologies, including solar electric propulsion (SEP) that it believes will be essential in reducing the cost and increasing the overall viability of those future Mars missions.

“We also need to have some flexibility to policy changes,” said Gerstenmaier.

But, five years after Obama established a goal of humans orbiting Mars in the mid-2030s, NASA hasn’t provided a detailed plan of how it will do that, to the frustration of some in the space community. Agency officials argue that they’re still figuring out what they need to learn in order to develop a more comprehensive Mars mission architecture.

They also acknowledge that they want to preserve options should the next administration want to change direction. “We also need to have some flexibility to policy changes,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) April 9.

“We recognize that we’ll get some direction somewhere along the way,” he said, referring to changes a new administration might want to make. “We need to not be so iron-barred to this particular application that when a little redirection comes the entire process falls apart.”

Gerstenmaier said that while it needs to make some decisions soon—such as for life support technologies, so there’s sufficient time to test them on the ISS—other decisions can be deferred for several years. That includes whether the first human Mars mission should be a mission to land on Mars itself, one of its two moons, or simply orbit Mars.

“We don’t need to make those decisions right now,” he said, suggesting NASA could hold off until as late as 2020 as it studied the various options. It would, he added, avoid making enemies prematurely of options not selected. “Once you make that decision, you’ve now created x number of friends, and you’ve created y number of enemies.”

Thus, NASA is no hurry to update its design reference mission, last revised in 2009. “In terms of another design reference mission,” Gerstenmaier said April 8, “it’s probably years away.”

But ARM, introduced by NASA two years ago this month as a means of achieving Obama’s goal of a human asteroid mission by 2025 and as a step towards later missions to Mars, remains as controversial as ever. At the NAC meeting earlier this month, council members unanimously approved a finding suggesting NASA abandon ARM entirely.

In that finding, the NAC endorsed the development of SEP, but not for redirecting an asteroid. “Maneuvering a large test mass is not necessary to provide a valid in-space test of a new SEP stage,” the finding states. “We also find that other possible motivations for acquiring and maneuvering a boulder (e.g. asteroid science, planetary defense) do not have value commensurate with their probable cost.”

“ARM still hasn’t garnered any support in academic, scientific, exploration, or international communities,” said Palazzo. “It is tough to see how this proposal gains traction in the remaining months of the President’s term.”

The council recommended that NASA instead demonstrate SEP with a round-trip Mars mission, “flying it to Mars orbit, and then back to the Earth-Moon system and into a distant retrograde lunar orbit.” The finding didn’t suggest what scientific payload, if any, that spacecraft should carry on that round-trip flight.

The NAC’s finding—less significant than a recommendation, which requires a formal response from NASA—became fodder for debates about ARM in the House hearing last week. “The ARM mission still hasn’t garnered any support in academic, scientific, exploration, or international communities,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS). “It is tough to see how this proposal gains traction in the remaining months of the President’s term.”

Bolden defended ARM as part of the agency’s Mars plans. “ARM is a critical component of getting humans to Mars,” he said. He said he wasn’t obligated to follow the NAC’s findings, noting that he can’t accept all of the advice that he receives.

Palazzo wasn’t swayed by Bolden’s arguments, though. “I think you will be challenged to make ARM last longer than this administration,” he said, cutting off Bolden from giving another response.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full committee, brought up ARM, and the NAC’s finding about it, again later in the hearing. “Charlie, all these experts have been unanimous in not recommending the ARM missions, and you all keep forging ahead,” he said. “Now I’m asking you, why are you ignoring all of these experts’ advice?”

“Mr. Chairman, because I believe in constancy of purpose,” Bolden responded. “I believe that my job is to determine which way this agency is going to go, recommend it to you and the President, and then pick that path and follow it. We are on a path to Mars.”

Five years after President Obama sketched out that path to Mars, NASA’s current leadership believes it’s moving down that path, bringing humans closer to Mars than ever before. But, just as the current president changed that path five years ago, his successor could do the same a few years from now.