Spaceflight Now

NASA unveils programs to implement Obama space plan
Posted: April 8, 2010

Bookmark and Share

One week before President Obama attends a major "space summit" in Florida, NASA unveiled sweeping new programs Thursday designed to implement the administration's proposed shift to commercial manned rockets and development of new technologies to enable eventual deep space exploration.

The president's fiscal 2011 budget request, which would cancel the Bush administration's Constellation moon program, does not specify a long-range target for manned exploration or a timetable for moving beyond low-Earth orbit, factors that have generated widespread criticism.

But NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander, defended the agency's new direction Thursday, saying the president's controversial "vision" is, unlike past programs, affordable and sustainable.

"This budget provides an increase to NASA at a time when funding is scarce," he said. "It will enable us to accomplish inspiring exploration, science and R and D, the kinds of things the agency has been known for throughout its history."

While deep space targets are not specified, the budget "enables NASA to set its sights on destinations beyond Earth orbit and develop the technologies that will be required to get us there, both with humans and robots," Bolden said.

"We're talking about technologies that the field has long wished we had but for which we did not have the resources," he said. "These are things that don't exist today but we'll make real in the coming years. This budget enables us to plan for a real future in exploration with capabilities that will make amazing things not only possible, but affordable and sustainable."

But even with increased funding, the looming retirement of the space shuttle and the proposed cancellation of Constellation will mean nearly 10,000 lost jobs at the Kennedy Space Center alone and thousands more at other NASA centers and communities.

"A very serious and real concern for everyone is the jobs," Bolden agreed. "But this is what we call progress, Unfortunately, If you look at every area of technology in this country, as you advance there are fewer and fewer manual-type jobs. That's what happens when you advance technology.

"We're doing everything within our power ... to help everybody understand we're expanding the amount of programs we have so that we can try to put people to work who are interested in being a part of the space program. Are we going to be able to employ everybody that used to work in shuttle? No, we're not. But that was never a vision.

"Even with the Constellation program, we were going to lose several thousand jobs because Constellation was a step further than shuttle. And the program we envision now is a step further than Constellation. But that is a significant issue for people."

In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, President Bush decided to complete the space station and retire the shuttle by 2010. At the same time, he directed NASA to begin development of new rockets, capsules and landers to carry astronauts back to the moon by the early 2020s. NASA came up with the Constellation program to implement those directives, spending some $9 billion over the past five years.

During the presidential campaign, Obama expressed support for Constellation but after the election, he set up a panel of outside experts to review NASA's plans and how much they might ultimately cost.

The panel concluded NASA could not afford to implement Constellation, or any other reasonable exploration program, without an additional $3 billion or so per year, primarily to make up for earlier budget reductions.

The group favored a shift to commercial launch services to carry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit while NASA focused on development of a new heavy-lift rocket system that would enable eventual flights to the moon, nearby asteroids or even the moons of Mars.

The Obama administration agreed with the idea of commercial launch services, but it did not specify any long-range destinations or timetables, focusing instead on development of enabling technologies.

The administration's $19 billion fiscal 2011 budget request for NASA would pump an additional $6 billion into the agency's budget over the next five years to kick start development of a new commercial manned spaceflight capability.

During a teleconference Thursday, Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver unveiled how some of that money will be spent, assuming Congressional approval, and which NASA centers will be responsible for implementing the new programs.

At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the International Space Station program is managed and where astronauts are trained, a flagship technology demonstration program office will be established, receiving $424 million in fiscal 2011 and $6 billion over the next five years.

The program will be responsible for flight tests of new technologies such as autonomous rendezvous and docking, in-orbit refueling and inflatable habitat modules. JSC also will continue to manage the space station program and work with the Kennedy Space Center on development of commercial manned spacecraft.

Asked if Johnson will give up its role in astronaut training and mission design as the agency shifts its focus to private-sector launch services, Bolden said he envisions a multi-faceted approach.

"At NASA, we provided astronauts for exploration," he said. "A lot of that exploration and experimentation today and in the future will be done on the International Space Station. So what we are doing is relying on commercial capability to get us access to low Earth orbit, to get us to the International Space Station.

"But to get to places like the moon and Mars and other beyond LEO places, that, we feel, is the responsibility of your government. Because that's risky, that's an investment that we can't really count on a commercial entity taking until we've demonstrated the ability to do that and do it safely."

Bolden said he did not envision "a significant change in the way we train, fly and operate a standard NASA mission, whether it's on the International Space Station or anywhere else."

"That activity will remain in Houston," he said. "The bulk of the work for the commercial crew actually deals with vehicle processing, vehicle purchasing or acquisition and the work with the commercial contractors themselves, since we expect they will all launch humans out of the Kennedy Space Center complex."

At Kennedy, the commercial crew development program office will manage $500 million in fiscal 2011 and $5.8 billion over the next five years to encourage development of a new private-sector launch industry. The deputy manager of the flagship technology demonstrations program will be based at Kennedy and a new program office will manage $1.9 billion over five years to upgrade and modernize the launch infrastructure.

"The goal is to augment NASA's current and future operations to achieve safe, increased operational efficiency and reduced launch costs for all customers," Garver said. "We also want to facilitate multiple launches of different types of vehicles from different companies carrying both humans and cargo in a timely fashion."

At the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., $3.1 billion would be spent over the next five years for heavy lift propulsion research and technology development to come up with designs for new rockets that can lift the large payloads needed for deep space exploration.

While the new plan for NASA does not specify a long-range target for exploration, Bolden said Mars is the ultimate objective. But getting there, he said, will require the new technologies that NASA's new approach is designed to develop.

"Sending humans to Mars is perhaps one of the most challenging endeavors technologically that I can imaging," said Bobby Braun, NASA's chief technologist. "We obviously need new launch systems that can lift much larger payloads, we need to have learned from our on-orbit assembly of the International Space Station on how to assemble large, complex spacecraft, we need new advanced propulsion technology to shorten the transit time, to limit the risk to humans during the duration of the in-space travel.

"We need to learn how to shield and protect our human astronauts during that transfer. We don't know how to land a significantly large amount of payload on the surface of Mars today. We know how to land perhaps golf-cart size or even small car size payloads. But we certainly don't know how to land a two-story house on the surface of Mars, particularly a two-story house right next to another two-story house that was sent ahead to prepare the way.

"So there are a wide range of technologies that need to be advanced to enable humans to go to that particular destinations," Braun said. "As you back off and consider other destinations, for instance, the moon, asteroids, the martian moons, we don't need all of those technological advances. But for our ultimate vision, we certainly need an investment in technology."