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Augustine appears before Congress about space review
Posted: September 15, 2009

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NASA's embattled Constellation moon program, thought by many to be on life support in the face of ongoing budget cuts, is technically feasible, "soundly" managed and capable of putting American astronauts back on the moon as planned in the 2020s, the chairman of a manned space review said Tuesday.

But only if the Obama administration and Congress restore some $3 billion in lost funding and maintain politically stable, long-term support. Without the additional money, NASA will be unable to carry out Constellation or any other meaningful manned space program, the chairman said.

An artist's concept of the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets. Credit: NASA
Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin and chairman of Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, told the House Committee on Science and Technology that he would not endorse any one of the panel's five options and their variants, but he agreed there should be "compelling reasons" to cancel a program, like Constellation, that is already in motion.

And neither he nor Edward Crawley, a panel member and engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who oversaw the development of the options submitted to the White House, offered any such compelling reasons.

"There were on our committee a number of people who actually built space flight hardware and their general consensus on the assessment of the Constellation program technically is it has problems, all real programs where you're really building hardware encounter developmental problems, but that we didn't see any ... that were not surmountable with proper engineering talent and skill, which we believe NASA can bring to bear," Crawley said.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), chairman of the Science and Technology committee, observed that Constellation was a congressionally authorized program that represented a significant expenditure to date.

"I don't think you trade what you know for what you don't know if it's equal or a little bit better," Gordon said. "So are you prepared to say that one or all of the other options are substantially better than Constellation and worth having a major turn now?"

"I think it would be our view, just what you said, there should be a compelling reason to change an existing program," Augustine replied. "We believe the existing program, given adequate funds, is executable and would carry out its objectives."

A key element in the Constellation program is development of a heavy lift rocket, the unmanned Ares 5 booster. Augustine said the highest priority for the nation's space program is development of a new heavy lifter, but "to answer your question, given additional funds ... we believe the existing program would be a fine program."

Gordon and virtually every other committee member who spoke Tuesday questioned the wisdom of changing direction and expressed support for trying to come up with the money needed to turn Constellation into reality.

"I'm not a fan of increased spending, but I've always thought our human space flight program gives the united States so much to be proud of, and carried within it is the promise of significant breakthroughs in healthcare, defense and alternative energy technologies," said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), the committee's ranking Republican.

"Mr. Chairman, in many ways it's hard for me to understand why the president is seeking new options at all when there's been an agreed upon plan for several years. Why don't we just fund the program we've all agreed to? Why should multi-billion-dollar bailouts of banks and insurance companies come at the expense of our talented scientists, our engineers and technicians who make the impossible look easy.

"I think many of us think it would take a very small fraction of our federal budget, just tenths of one percent, to make a significant difference in our human spaceflight goals," Hall said. "But even if that level of funding is not forthcoming, we have to be very careful how we proceed because we have a lot at stake."

Mike Griffin, NASA's former administrator and the man in charge when the Constellation program was developed, put the debate in stark terms. Since 1994, he said, NASA's annual budget has suffered a 20 percent decline in real dollars.

"At this time a year ago, the original budget for exploration had already been eroded by some $12 billion to pay for other things," he said. "The budget submitted this past May erodes that further to the point where some $30 billion has, if those plans go forward, been removed from space exploration.

"The issue is money. That issue renders moot all other debate as to what other destinations we might pursue, whether they're the moon, near Earth asteroids, Mars or any debate about how we might get there. On the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, this is a sobering thought. ... I hope I'm not the only one who finds it shameful we're in this position."

Griffin brought up President Kennedy's speech to a joint session of Congress in 1961 when he called on the nation to commit itself to landing a man on the moon and by the end of the decade.

"With the budget in front of us, we're poised to behave not like the Kennedy administration but the Nixon administration where, after spending literally a fortune to develop the spaceships for Apollo, we threw them away," Griffin said. "We spent 80 percent of the money building them, 20 percent of the money using them and they're gone. So, do today's leaders want to be remembered like John Kennedy or Richard nixon? That's the choice before us."

The Science and Technology Committee members who spoke agreed with Griffin's assessment that more money is needed. As Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) put it, "we've got to fish or cut bait."

"I believe passionately it's the mission of our species to explore and to actually leave the solar system at some point, but it's going to cost us and we have to decide whether we want to spend that," he said. "And I believe it's the mission of this country to lead the world in that."

The Constellation program was born in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. The accident review board recommended that if NASA chose to fly the shuttle past 2010, the agency should re-certify the spacecraft. Re-certification would have required re-examining the engineering rationale that went into every aspect of the shuttle's design to identify areas that needed improvements to boost safety.

Instead, the Bush administration decided in January 2004 to finish the International Space Station and to retire the shuttle in 2010. At the same time, NASA was told to begin development of a replacement system that could ferry astronauts to and from the space station and eventually, on to the moon, a system that would be safer and less expensive to operate than the shuttle. The long-range goal was establishment of Antarctica-type lunar research stations where astronauts can live and work for months at a time.

NASA's answer to this new direction was the Constellation program, a radical departure from the world of shuttle operations. Instead of one rocket designed to carry astronauts and heavy payloads, two rockets were envisioned: the manned Ares 1, designed to boost Apollo-like Orion crew capsules to low-Earth orbit; and the unmanned Ares 5, a huge heavy lift rocket that will carry a four-person lunar lander into space.

For a moon shot, the Ares 5 would be launched from one pad, followed a few hours later by launch of the crew in an Orion capsule atop an Ares 1.

After linking up in low-Earth orbit, the Ares 5 upper stage would propel the Altair lunar lander and astronauts in the attached Orion capsule to the moon. The entire crew would descend to the lunar surface in the lander and, when its mission is complete, blast off, rendezvous with the orbiting Orion capsule and return to Earth for an ocean splashdown reminiscent of the Apollo program.

The Bush administration did not give NASA much in the way of additional funding to pay for initial Constellation development and the agency was forced to cut back in other areas to kick start the new program.

Given the lack of funding up front, development of the Ares 1 has lagged and now won't be available until 2015. During the five-year gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of Ares 1/Orion, NASA will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at $50 million each, to ferry U.S. and international astronauts to and from the space station.

During the presidential campaign, Obama expressed support for the Constellation program and it's long-range goal of returning to the moon. But after his election, the Office of Management and Budget cut another $3.1 billion from NASA's long-range budget, money that was critical to initial development of the new Ares 5 booster. Those cuts, on top of earlier reductions, have left NASA in what the Augustine panel described as an untenable position.

"The reluctant bottom line conclusion of our committee is that the current program as it's being pursued is not executable, that we're on a path that will not lead to a useful, safe human exploration program and the reason for that is the mismatch between the tasks to be performed and the funds available to support those tasks," Augustine said Tuesday.

"It also came as a considerable disappointment to this committee that we were unable to find any alternative space programs that would be worthy of this country that could be conducted for the funding profile now in place."

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee was set up by the Obama administration to examine NASA's current plans for retiring the shuttle, completing the space station and returning to the moon, as well as alternative strategies for moving beyond low-Earth orbit.

The committee also considered how long NASA and its partners should operate the International Space Station. NASA currently has no money in its projected downstream budget to operate the space station beyond 2015.

In its executive summary - the group's final report is not yet complete - the panel did not make any recommendations. Instead, it listed five options, or architectures, and the pros and cons associated with each. The first two options assume NASA is forced to live within current 2010 budget projections.

In one, the shuttle is retired on schedule and the space station is deorbited in 2015 or 2016. Under that scenario, the panel concluded, NASA would not be able to return to the moon until the 2030s or later. In the other "constrained budget" case, the shuttle is retired, the station is extended through 2020, the Ares 1 is canceled and NASA relies instead on the commercial development of new rockets to to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit. Under that scenario, the panel said, a heavy lift rocket is delayed to the late 2020s and no money is available to develop lunar landing technologies.

The panel's final three options assume NASA's exploration budget is boosted by $3 billion and then allowed to grow each year at 2.4 percent to offset inflation.

Option No. 3 is basically NASA's Constellation program as currently envisioned, with shuttle retirement in early 2011 and no additional money for operation of the International Space Station past 2015. In that case, the panel concluded, NASA could, in fact, return to the moon in the mid 2020s.

Option No. 4 would extend the station through 2020 and retain the moon as the nation's primary target beyond low-Earth orbit. But it would rely on development of commercial access to low-Earth orbit. In one variant, the shuttle is retired and NASA builds an Ares 5 Lite to launch crew and cargo to the moon. In the other, the shuttle program is extended and a new heavy lifter based on shuttle technology is developed for moon flights.

Option No. 5 represents a so-called "flexible path" architecture that would explore the inner solar system with long-duration flights to a variety of targets, ranging from lunar orbit to the moons of Mars. The long-range goals could include lunar landings and eventual flights to Mars itself. This scenario assumes development of commercial launchers, shuttle retirement and no station extension.

Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), chairwoman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, was critical of the Augustine panel's options, saying "I thought we were going to take a hard, cold, sobering look at the Constellation program and tell us exactly what we needed to do here in Congress, with our budget, in order to maximize the chances of success. But that's not what I see."

"Instead of focusing on how to strengthen the exploration program in which we've invested so much time - four years, billions of dollars - we have a glancing attention to Constellation, even referring to it in the past tense in your summary report and instead spending the bulk of the time crafting alternative options that do little to illuminate the choices that I think are really confronting the Congress and the White House.

"So where does that leave us? I think in place of a serious review of potential actions that could be taken to strengthen and improve the Constellation program, we've been given a set of alternatives that in some sense look almost like cartoons, lacking detailed costs, schedule, technical, safety, other programmatic specifics that can't be subjected to the rigorous and comprehensive analysis and validation that NASA's required to go over.

"So I guess I'll ask my colleagues on this committee, what are we going to do with this report? I know that we are going to see more details. But in the absence of mismanagement or technological show stoppers ... none of which the Augustine panel has indicated has occurred in this program, can any of us in good conscience recommend canceling the exploration systems development programs that Congress has funded and supported over the past four years?"

Giffords said she did not see "the logic of scrapping what the nation has spent years and billions of dollars to develop."

"And for the nation's sake, I hope we can break this cycle of false starts that was mentioned by many of my colleagues before," she said. "The future of America's human spaceflight is really at risk. And I'm hoping before the panel is dismantled we can get some real, solid numbers ... so we can make the decisions as to what to do with our future in manned spaceflight."

Keeping the $75 billion International Space Station operational through at least 2020 seems to be a given regardless of which option is ultimately approved. In his written remarks to the Science and Technology Committee, Griffin reflected the views of many when he said "any discussion of decommissioning and deorbiting the ISS is irrelevant to the consideration of serious programmatic options."

"The United States is now the majority owner of a 450 ton laboratory in space, a facility without compare," he wrote. "The fact that it took too long to build and that we spent more money on it than we should have is irrelevant to future decisions. We have it. We should use it to the maximum possible extent, for as long as we can make it last.

"But we must also go beyond ISS. The existence of future exploration programs cannot be traded against sustenance of the ISS on an 'either-or' basis, as if that were a realistic option. If the nation is to have a viable human spaceflight program, the requirement to sustain ISS while also developing new systems to go beyond low Earth orbit is the minimally necessary standard. If the nation can no longer meet that standard, then it should be so stated, in which case any further discussion of U.S. human exploration beyond LEO (low-Earth orbit) is moot for the next two decades."