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Ares 1-X launch
Despite the success of the Ares 1-X test launch in October, the Ares 1 could be in jeopardy as the White House develops a new space exploration policy. (credit: NASA/KSC)

NASA’s dangerous new year


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If NASA administrator Charles Bolden was a European 13th century aristocrat instead of a 21st century political appointee, he would be known as “Duke Charles The Well-Beloved”. His people skills are awesome. Few government leaders have been able to inspire the kind of affection that he has engendered in a remarkably short time. However, if NASA becomes the center of a political bar brawl between factions in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and even inside the space agency itself, this good will could evaporate.

If the Constellation program is killed—and make no mistake, if Ares 1 is killed Constellation dies as well—then the result will not be a smooth transition to a new “Flexible Path” program.

The supposed White House leak last month of what was purported to be the Obama Administration’s new space policy, and the way it was quickly shot down, is a sign that there is an ongoing struggle over civil space policy within the White House. The President has not yet made up his mind on how he should respond to the Augustine committee’s report. The political dangers involved in making a change in the current policy are evident. Jobs losses in the tens of thousands in Florida, Alabama, Texas, and California are certainly a consideration when making any major changes in what the committee called the “Program of Record”, i.e., the Constellation program.

While jobs are not, in and of themselves, a reason to do proceed with any particular project, keeping a strong, qualified, and highly skilled space workforce is important for US national security. Over the last couple of decades the US has lost more space jobs than it can afford. To throw away any more would put the US on a path towards becoming a second-rate space power, and in the 21st century that is not much of an option.

The cuts to the agency’s purchasing power and the lack of a reduction in the missions and facilities NASA is expected to support has led to a radical reduction in investments in technology and hardware. The 2002 decision by Sean O’Keefe to kill the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) program is typical of the bad choices that budgetary stress inflicts on the space program. If the CRV program had been kept alive it would have given NASA a number of alternatives ways to reach the ISS. It is hard to see the Obama Administration arguing with a straight face that we cannot fully fund $12 billion extra over three years for NASA when they have already spent hundred of billions on stimulus programs.

If the Constellation program is killed—and make no mistake, if Ares 1 is killed Constellation dies as well—then the result will not be a smooth transition to a new “Flexible Path” program, but an ugly fight over money and jobs in which any exploration goals will be of secondary importance at best. It is hard to see how a new policy could be sold to either Congress or the public.

The Augustine committee report gives a number of so-called “Public Engagement justifications” for the various proposed Flexible Path steps. For example, the Lunar Flyby option one is “Return to Moon any time we want”. Yet, as soon as the public understands that this does not mean we can land there, the value of the operation will be questioned. Likewise, while a trip to the Earth-Moon L-1 Lagrange point would be presented to the public as “On-Ramp to the interplanetary highway,” critics will call it a trip to a mathematical abstraction. Some member of Congress will no doubt ask, “How do you plant a flag in empty space?”

If Congress were to go along with the Flexible Path option, they would be openly admitting that they made big mistakes in 2005 and 2008 when they endorsed the Constellation architecture by large bipartisan majorities. Not only that, but they would be asked: if NASA got it wrong last time, how do we know that they will get it right this time?

Inside NASA the problems could get nasty in a quiet and insidious fashion. Centers such as Huntsville, if ordered to slow down or cancel work on Ares 1, would work hard to find ways to undermine the decision. Institutional insubordination is not unknown inside the federal government; we certainly saw a lot of it over the last eight years. In the 1980s and early 1990s NASA certainly suffered from a bad case of it. The “One NASA” concept that Sean O’Keefe tried to put in place was reluctantly accepted, but it didn’t change many long-held attitudes.

Holding the agency together in the face of a painful disappointment, such as we may see when the White House makes its decision, will be an exceptionally difficult job. The temptation will be for every man and woman, and for the Centers and programs, to scramble indiscriminately to grab what they can. Any unified vision will disappear and it would be years before NASA could regain the relative balance it has built up since recovering from the loss of Columbia.

Budget-driven changes in NASA’s main human spaceflight programs have done plenty of harm in the past. It would be a tragedy if the administration and Congress were to repeat the mistakes of the Nixon era.

In an ideal world the White House would support a bigger budget for NASA, along the lines of “Constellation Plus”. Such a program would provide reasonable support for a commercial crewed access system for the International Space Station and for other destinations in low Earth orbit. It would also continue work on the Ares 1/Orion combination as the best and safest way to send American astronauts to the ISS and to the Moon as well as possibly beyond. Above all, it would concentrate on getting back to the Moon on a reasonable schedule: between 2020 and 2025.

The Augustine committee report quotes a National Research Council report that stated, “Lack of knowledge about the biological effects of and responses to space radiation is the single most important factor limiting the prediction of radiation risk associated with human space exploration.” For the moment, the best place to perform such risk reduction work is on the surface of the Moon. It is also the one place where NASA and the US can begin practical work on things like in situ resource utilization that could mine water, hydrogen, and oxygen as well as other useful products.

Budget-driven changes in NASA’s main human spaceflight programs have done plenty of harm in the past, beginning with the way that early design work on the shuttle was shortchanged. It would be a tragedy if the administration and Congress were to repeat the mistakes of the Nixon era.


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