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Falcon 9 on the pad
NASA’s new human spaceflight plan is expected to have a greater reliance on commercial providers, like SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket (above), instead of continuing to develop the Ares vehicles. (credit: SpaceX)

The real question


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Seven years ago today, America’s space program was indelibly altered by a tragedy. Prior to the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven-person crew during reentry, the focus of NASA’s human spaceflight program extended little beyond completing the International Space Station and continuing to fly the shuttle to support it for perhaps many years to come. Yes, there were studies for new spacecraft and launch vehicles, under the Orbital Space Plane and Space Launch Initiative programs, but formal policy focused on completing and making use of the space station. Less than a year later, the White House announced a new, outward-looking direction for human spaceflight: the Vision for Space Exploration.

Ares 1, a vehicle seemingly revered and reviled in equal measure in the space community, would not be replaced with another NASA launch vehicle. Instead, it appears, the agency appears willing to rely on commercial providers to ferry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

Now, it seems, yet a new direction for NASA will emerge today in the release of the Obama Administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget request. It’s been clear for months now—at least since the administration’s May 2009 announcement of the formation of a committee chaired by Norm Augustine to examine alternatives—that the Vision was in jeopardy. The Vision hadn’t built up the momentum by this point that one might have expected when it was announced six years ago last month, be it because of lower-than-planned budgets, choice of technical architectures, or a combination of the two. As the Augustine Committee’s final report noted, even with a boost of up to $3 billion a year above currently-projected budgets, the current “program of record” wouldn’t be able to return humans to the Moon before the mid-2020s, several years after the Vision’s original 2020 goal.

While the specifics of the White House’s new plan won’t be released until later today, there have been enough leaks—substantiated by statements from unnamed White House and NASA officials—to provide a broad picture of the planned course correction. Gone, it seems, are plans to return to the Moon as the initial destination for humans beyond low Earth orbit, be it in 2020 or later. Those plans will be replaced by an architecture like the “Flexible Plan” approach outlined in the Augustine Committee report, which would send astronauts to Lagrange points and near Earth objects—and, yes, the Moon as well, just not as an initial destination—as stepping stones leading eventually to Mars.

Also gone in this approach would be the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets that were at the heart of the exploration architecture NASA unveiled in the fall of 2005. The Ares 5 would be replaced at some point by some other kind of heavy-lift launcher, be it shuttle- or EELV-derived. However, Ares 1, a vehicle seemingly revered and reviled in equal measure in the space community, would not be replaced with another NASA launch vehicle. Instead, it appears, the agency appears willing to rely on commercial providers to ferry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit, and may be willing to spend up to $6 billion to help develop such capabilities, in much the same way it’s invested a much smaller sum to develop commercial cargo transportation to the ISS.

The reaction on Capitol Hill last week to these rough outlines of the new plan, as they leaked out to the media, was sharp, swift, and almost uniformly negative, particularly in places like Alabama, Florida, and Texas that have NASA centers closely tied to the current plan. “If recent reports regarding the future of the Constellation program and the direction of NASA are true, then the President could not be more wrong to consider cancelling it,” Rep. Pete Olson, a Texas Republican whose district includes the Johnson Space Center, said in a statement indicative of the tone of the opposition to the rumored plan. “At a time when the Constellation program continues to meet important programmatic milestones (on a smaller budget than promised) changing NASA’s course would bring instability to the agency and weaken America’s role as the global leader in human space flight.”

The response in Florida has been particularly strident because of the looming retirement of the space shuttle and resulting loss of thousands of jobs. The region was already worried about the economic dislocation that the multi-year gap between the shuttle and Constellation would create; eliminating Constellation in favor of a commercial alternative and undefined heavy-lift vehicle seemed to make the situation even worse. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, a Democrat whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, dismissed the new plan as “unacceptable” and leveled criticism directly at President Obama. “The Space Coast and communities across the country have been looking to the President for leadership and a bold vision for the future of space exploration, and after months of delays he seems to be falling short,” she said in a statement.

“If recent reports regarding the future of the Constellation program and the direction of NASA are true, then the President could not be more wrong to consider cancelling it,” said Rep. Olson.

Rep. Bill Posey, a Republican whose direct lies immediately south of KSC, was even more severe, claiming the new plan would be “devastating” to NASA and the Space Coast region. He noted that during the 2008 campaign, Obama planned to close the shuttle-Constellation gap in part by accelerating the development of the shuttle’s replacement. “The President’s U-turn on this issue is both bizarre and misguided,” Posey stated.

There’s also been strong negative reaction outside of Washington. Speaking at an event in Ocala, Florida, on Friday, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt railed against the plan. “If it is a commercial effort only to visit the space station, then it is the beginning of the end of human space exploration,” he claimed, as reported by the Ocala Star-Banner. “Ultimately, you abandon the Moon to China, you abandon the space station to Russia, and you abandon liberty to the ages. If China and Russia are the dominant space powers, then liberty is at risk because they don't believe in it.”

“We need to get to Mars,” Hugh Downs, the legendary newscaster and space aficionado, said Saturday according to the Huntsville Times, “but it may be after this political administration before anything happens.”

There has been support for this new direction for NASA, but so far that’s primarily been limited to elements of the commercial space industry and its advocates. “NASA investment in the commercial spaceflight industry is a win-win decision: commercial crew will create thousands of high-tech jobs in the United States, especially in Florida, while reducing the spaceflight gap and preventing us from sending billions to Russia,” Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group, said in a statement. The Space Frontier Foundation, meanwhile, was dancing on the grave of Ares 1. “Canceling the expensive, ill-fated Ares 1 rocket opens the door for private enterprise to create a safe, reliable and low-cost commercial spaceflight industry, with government as a customer and partner instead of a competitor,” said Foundation chairman Bob Werb.

However, if there are advocates for the administration’s new plan for NASA in Congress, they remained quiet last week. That suggests that any plan that dumps the current Constellation architecture will face a stiff Congressional battle in the months to come. In fact, Congress fired a preemptive shot in the battle last fall in the appropriations bill that funds the agency for the current fiscal year: the bill includes language that prevents the “termination or elimination” of any aspect of Constellation, or creation of any new related program by NASA without the approval of Congress in a subsequent appropriation. That puts NASA in the odd situation of having to spend money in the coming eight months on elements of a program it plans to cancel.

Of course, as odd situations go that’s pretty mild. One of the more bizarre aspects of the current debate is that a president widely regarded as a liberal, big-government supporter is proposing a program that would commercialize an aspect of NASA, human spaceflight, that has always been done by the government—and that he would be opposed by, among others, Republican members of Congress who would ordinarily be receptive to such measures but instead find themselves not only seeking to support a government-run program but also asking for more money for it.

So in the coming months there’s likely to be a strident debate about the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Can commercial providers, largely untried at this time, be relied upon to carry humans to orbit in the foreseeable future? Is the Moon the next destination for humans, or should it be a more distant asteroid or (in the case of a Lagrange point) an empty region of space? Does it makes sense to continue to extend the life of the ISS to 2020 or beyond, knowing that the cost of station operations would likely delay the development of systems needed to send humans beyond LEO? These questions, and similar ones, will be debated for months in the halls of Congress and other fora.

The tragedy that scarred the Texas sky seven years ago this morning provided an opportunity to reshape the direction of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts, and make them more relevant to America. We’ve stumbled in that quest so far.

However, there’s a much bigger question that, ironically, is less likely to come up in those debates: what is the ultimate purpose of NASA’s human spaceflight program? Why do we—or should we—spend billions of dollars to send people into space? (See “The $3-billion-a-year question”, The Space Review, September 21, 2009) If the American people, through their elected representatives, conclude that the justification is national prestige, then something like Constellation may make the most sense: it demonstrates to the world the capabilities of America’s aerospace industry compared to rival efforts in Russia, China, and elsewhere. Likewise, if the goal is creating—or at least preserving—high-paying aerospace and related jobs in key regions of the country, Constellation, perhaps coupled with some kind of shuttle extension to mitigate the effects of a gap, may be the most effective, at least in the near term.

However, the Augustine Committee had a different idea in mind. “[T]he ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system,” they wrote in their final report. In that case, a plan that puts a greater emphasis on commercial capabilities may make more sense: after all, human expansion should ultimately mean more than government-run missions. Whether a message like that will resonate with the public and with Congress, though, remains to be seen.

The tragedy that scarred the Texas sky seven years ago this morning provided an opportunity to reshape the direction of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts, and make them more relevant to America. We’ve stumbled in that quest so far, given that we’re having this debate now. How much longer do we have before the public decides that human space exploration, at least that funded by the government, is no longer relevant?


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