Augustine Committee: Current NASA Human Space Flight Program on "Unsustainable Trajectory"

Augustine Committee: Current NASA Human Space Flight Program on "Unsustainable Trajectory"

The Augustine committee released a summary of its report today outlining its views on the future of the U.S. human space flight program. The committee was created by NASA at the direction of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The report’s opening sentences set the stage for what is packed into the brief 12 pages: “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practices of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.”

The committee fulfilled its mandate to provide five options (though there really are eight) including two that fit within the current budget. The fact that they describe the two options that fit within the current budget as “not viable” and conclude that the other options require an additional $3 billion per year for the next 5 years (and 2.4% inflationary increases thereafter) paints a sobering landscape.

On a brighter note, the committee extols the benefits of international cooperation and the additional resources that could be made available if the United States is willing to continue playing a “first among equals” role as it does now with the International Space Station program. The committee also gave a thumbs up to the potential for commercial companies to play a greater role in human space flight.

Taken as a whole, however, the report underscores the difficult choices that face the Obama Administration. The President’s February 2009 budget message said that NASA “will create a new chapter in this legacy as it works to return Americans to the Moon by 2020 as part of a robust human and robotic space exploration program.” Today’s report could not be more clear that such a robust program needs significantly more money than the President’s budget provides. Adding more funding for NASA could be a tough sell in these woeful economic times. The President will have to decide if he wants to take it on. As the committee makes clear: “If … the nation cannot afford to fund the effort to pursue the goals it would like to embrace, it should accept the disappointment of setting lesser goals.”

Perhaps one of the more telling remarks in the report is the committee’s observation, in arguing for program stability, that “One way to ensure that no successes are achieved is to continually pull up the flowers to see if the roots are healthy.”

The committee lists its key findings as the following:

  • Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 budget guideline.
  • Meaningful human exploration is possible under a less constrained budget, ramping to approximately $3 billion per year above the FY 2010 guidance in total resources.
  • Funding at the increased level would allow either an exploration program to explore Moon First or one that follows a Flexible Path of exploration. Either could produce results in a reasonable timeframe.

The committee lists five “Key Questions to Guide the Plan for Human Spaceflight.” Here is a synopsis of the committee’s input on those questions.

Future of the Space Shuttle: The committee concluded that the space shuttle is the only way to close what it calculates as a 7-year gap between when the shuttle is to be terminated and a new system becomes available. However, flying the shuttle for additional years appears in only one of the options; all the others assume the shuttle will be terminated once the remaining six flights are completed. The committee estimates that the six flights will run through the second quarter of FY2011 and advises the administration to budget accordingly.

Future of the International Space Station: Extending the ISS to 2020 clearly is a consensus position of the committee in order to achieve a reasonable return on the investment made in the ISS and to ensure the United States remains in a position to successfully “develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships.”

Next Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle: The committee punted on this issue, explaining that each of the options it reviewed, both those with a NASA heritage and an EELV heritage, had “distinct advantages and disadvantages.”

Crew Transport to Low Earth Orbit (LEO): The Ares I rocket now under development by NASA will not be ready in time to take crews to the ISS under the current plan according to the committee. It estimates Ares I will be ready no earlier than 2017 and ISS is scheduled to be de-orbited in 2016. Instead, the committee concluded that “it is an appropriate time to consider turning this transport service over to the commercial sector.” That does not rule out development of Ares I, but the Ares I/Orion system appears in only two of the committee’s options: the current program of record, which the committee deems to be not viable; and the current program of record with additional funding and pushing the return to the Moon out to the mid-2020s.

Most Practicable Strategy for Exploration Beyond LEO: The committee concludes that Mars should a goal, but not the next goal: “The Committee finds that Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination.” It offers the “Moon First” and “Flexible Path” options instead, with no definitive choice between them. Instead, the committee argues they are not mutually exclusive.

The key question now is: what’s next? The committee was given its short deadline ostensibly because guidance was needed for both the FY2010 and FY2011 budgets. The House decided to hold funding for the Constellation program to its FY2009 level instead of approving the requested increase for FY2010 pending the Augustine committee’s report (H.R. 2847, H. Rept. 111-149). The Senate appropriations committee recommended the requested funding level (S. Rept. 111-34), adding that “The opportunity for directing a well constructed and thoughtful approach to manned space flight should be as a budget amendment to the 2010 budget request that is received in a manner that is timely for consideration by the Committee, or as part of the 2011 budget request.”

The full Augustine report is expected in mid-late September. The House Science and Technology Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the report on September 15. The congressional appropriations process for FY2010 is ongoing. Meanwhile, NASA’s website for the committee conveys no sense of urgency, saying only that NASA is working with OSTP and other parts of the White House “to plan the next steps leading to a decision by the President about future U.S. human space flight policy.”

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