Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reviewing the Reviewers – A Commentary on the Augustine Report

The much awaited report by the panel tasked by US President Obama to provide a Review of the U.S. Human Space Flight program will have to wait a few more weeks. However, a 12-page summary is already available (you can read it for yourself here: http://www.nasa.gov/offices/hsf/home/index.html). The reaction to the report seems mixed and spans the gamut from describing the options presented as too expansive, just right or too conservative. Some of this is described here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/science/space/16nasa.html?hpw or for a slightly more detailed version try http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n0909/15augustine/.

There do appear to be a few things that are widely agreed on. The first is that no matter what we do, there will be a gap in the ability of the United States to transport personnel to orbit. Since the committee is assuming a baseline additional two year slip in the Ares-1 program, if it is selected, this gap would be of order seven years. Second, under the current budget, the time required to obtain sufficient heavy lift capability to return to the Moon stretches out a very long way into the future, and may not even be ultimately feasible. Thirdly, de-orbiting the ISS in 2016 potentially poses a significant risk to US international participation in future space endeavours.

However, the current baseline is achievable without these delays with a modest increase in NASA’s budget from the current $17.6 billion to around $21 billion. That level of increased funding would also permit other options for exploration as well. Whether that money is forthcoming is yet to be seen. The house committee on Science and Technology seems enthusiastic enough; however, NASA’s long term budget was cut earlier this year by the democrats and expected additional funding from the Bush administration for the original Constellation program in 2004 never arrived. So whether these moneys will be provided are anyone’s guess.

Let's delve a little more deeply into the summary report itself. The meat of the report is table 4-1 which describes five different ways forward some with several sub options. The first is the program as-is, the second extends the life of the ISS out to 2020 and replaces flights to LEO with a commercial option. However, if that $3-4 billion is added, additional options become available. These can be used to increase the rapidity of the Ares program (Option 3) to put it back on track, extend the ISS life with a commercial options while doing the same (4A) or closing the gap in human space flight by recertifying the shuttle out to 2015 (4B). Additionally, and most excitingly, option 5 moves past the paradigm of heading first to the moon by considering various ways in which the current program and technology can be leveraged to expand NASA’s role beyond earth orbit and into free space.

While the job of the panel was simply to list alternatives on which the White House and Congress will ultimately decide – and Dr. Augustine refused to endorse any one option – I suspect that the committee’s heart belongs mainly to option 5. They talk about how it would be possible to achieve firsts in free space at a rate of about one per year, visiting lagrange points, earth crossing asteroids and the moons of Mars without the kind of funding increase that a full Mars mission would require. These are, in other words, the types of missions that inspire people to go into science and engineering and dream of being astronauts.

I think that this is the kind of program that I can get behind. The moon, while it might be interesting and worthy of more research is a place we’ve already been. Building a base there is a laudable goal, but can wait. Either way, it does seem clear that NASA’s future lies outside of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Hence, the committee also highlights supporting a commercial presence in LEO for all options except the program of record.

Former Administrator Griffin has spoken out against this proposal by stating that the commercial space industry is still nascent and has a long way to go before it can provide safe, effective transport to LEO. He’s right – but not because of a lack of technology or ingenuity, but for lack of a bankable reason to develop that capability. Thus in the same way that the airline industry grew thanks to subsidies for air mail delivery, challenging private industry to take up the transport of crew to LEO and the ISS would spur forward the development of this capacity quickly.

Ultimately, this change could be the greatest benefit of a slightly redesigned program. By commercializing LEO, launch costs could be reduced and the space industry stimulated. This would pay dividends to any space travel initiatives, and holds out the possibility of eventual affordable commercial flights to LEO for ordinary citizens. Once individuals have had that experience, I doubt that support for further expansion into space will be hard to come by.

As I’ve said in the past, ultimately what it comes down to is a question of purpose for NASA. They can move progressively onward and upward, ceding the ground where they have sown the seeds of development to private industry. Or, they can fall back and get out of crewed spaceflight, concentrating their resources on cheaper robotic exploration. Or they can do nothing and continue the current trajectory of chipping slowly away at the agency until only enough funding remains to keep the engineers and scientists employed and the lights on in the NASA centers.

We can and should do better. So I’ll be watching the full report and the reaction to it closely. For as difficult as it might be to change horses in mid stream, it’s more dangerous still to risk all that the agency has built over the last fifty years in planning for the future. I think the Augustine panel understands that and I think there's a good case for optimism going forward at this point.

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