Augustine: future of human spaceflight hinges on funding
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: July 30, 2009
The commission reviewing the future of U.S. human spaceflight will present up to a half-dozen options to President Obama late next month, ranging from a conservative, methodical space program to an aggressive blueprint for a mission to Mars.
But the panel's chairman, former Lockheed Martin executive Norman Augustine, said NASA's constrained budget hangs over the committee's work.
"The budget at this point is clearly driving the program, without question," Augustine told reporters after a hearing Thursday in Cocoa Beach, Fla.
There is enough money in next year's budget request for a "conservative" crewed program beyond low Earth orbit, but that would require immediately scrapping the space shuttle and International Space Station, Augustine said.
NASA's current plans call for retiring the space shuttle next year and continuing the station program until at least 2015, while simultaneously developing the first phase of the next-generation Constellation program.
Early Constellation development focuses on missions to Earth orbit. Lunar flights will not start until after 2020, and serious planning for those missions is years away.
The first operational flight of Constellation, using the Ares rocket and Orion capsule, is scheduled for no earlier than 2015. Independent assessments indicate the maiden launch won't occur before 2017.
The Constellation program is under fire for delays and diminishing capabilities encountered since work began in 2005.
Amid the criticism, the White House established the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee in May to help chart the nation's future in space. It will complete its report by the end of August.
The 10-person board will first consider the most valuable goals for the human space program, before accounting for the earthly realities of funding, safety and expected job losses with the transition to a new system.
"We are starting out with what are the useful things we should be doing in space," Augustine said.
The scenarios President Obama will receive will include at least one option with an ultimate destination of Mars, Augustine confirmed Thursday.
The committee expects the more pragmatic recommendations will assume an available budget of about $80 billion over 10 years.
The group is also mulling options to close the gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability between the space shuttle's retirement and the introduction of a new architecture.
Augustine said the most realistic way to shorten the gap is to extend the life of the shuttle, despite serious budgetary concerns and promising commercial capabilities.
"The only way to close it is to continue operating the shuttle," Augustine said.
That statement echoed the thoughts of former astronaut Sally Ride during a meeting Tuesday.
In three public hearings this week, the presidential commission heard testimony from NASA officials, independent experts and citizens. The meetings were held near NASA centers in Houston, Huntsville, Ala., and Cocoa Beach.
Four committee subgroups presented reports covering an array of questions facing the agency. Ride chaired the board's review of NASA's plans for the shuttle and station programs.
Ride said the space shuttle would likely have to fly past its scheduled retirement next year.
The shuttle fleet is now slated to retire next September, but Ride said a more realistic assumption is the orbiters will continue flying through at least March 2011 to safely finish building the space station.
After space shuttle Endeavour returns Friday from its current mission, there are only seven more flights planned for the spaceplane.
Ride also presented two options that add more flights to the shuttle program, including one plan that would continue operating the system through 2014. That scenario, which has no credible cost estimate, would be a dramatic departure from NASA's current plans.
Experts said a lengthy extension of shuttle operations should only be on the table if NASA scraps its Ares rocket and goes to a next-generation booster derived from the shuttle.
Ride also recommended prolonging the life of the space station beyond 2015, when funding currently runs out for the space lab.
Augustine said it would cost about $14 billion to extend the outpost's operations for five years.
Another subject the committee is deliberating is the fundamental question of why the United States should send explorers into space.
Jeff Hanley, NASA's Constellation program manager, addressed this issue during Thursday's hearing.
"NASA's value to our nation stems in part from trailblazing," Hanley said. "In a word, risk is our business."
Hanley stressed the economic frontiers human exploration could open.
"Governments blaze trails, commerce exploits them and economies grow," he said.