Augustine Panel Mandate Unclear

Augustine Panel Mandate Unclear

Differing views on the mandate for and potential impact of the “Augustine panel” on future U.S. human space flight activities were aired during a joint meeting of the NRC’s Space Studies Board (SSB) and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) on May 13, 2009.

The panel is being created at White House direction and will be chaired by former Lockheed Martin executive Norman Augustine. Today NASA is proceeding with Project Constellation to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars as directed by President George W. Bush in 2004. The question is whether the new Obama Administration wants to continue on that course. The panel’s report is due in August 2009.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP’s) May 7, 2009 press release lays out the Augustine panel’s mandate to –

“examine ongoing and planned [NASA] development activities, as well as potential alternatives, and present options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program in the years following Space Shuttle retirement.” It goes on to say that the panel “will assess a number of architecture options, taking into account such objectives as:

  1. expediting a new U.S. capability to support use of the International Space


  1. supporting missions to the Moon and other destinations beyond low Earth orbit;
  1. stimulating commercial space flight capabilities; and
  1. fitting within the current budget profile for NASA exploration activities.

“Among the parameters to be considered in the course of its review are crew and mission safety, life-cycle costs, development time, national space industrial base impacts, potential to spur innovation and encourage competition, and the implications and impacts of transitioning from current human space flight systems. The review will consider the appropriate amounts of R&D and complementary robotic activity necessary to support various human space flight activities, as well as the capabilities that are likely to be enabled by each of the potential architectures under consideration. It will also explore options for extending International Space Station operations beyond 2016.”

During the day-long SSB/ASEB meeting, NASA officials and White House and congressional staff discussed their views on the panel’s task. Acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese presented a chart laying out the OSTP terms of reference and adding two more: “determine appropriate opportunities for international collaboration,” and look at the “Potential for inspiring the nation, and motivating young people to pursue careers in STEM subjects.” The NASA chart also states that the panel will “determine” rather than “consider” the appropriate amount of R&D and complementary robotic activity necessary to support various human space flight activities. In addition to answering questions about the future of Project Constellation, Mr. Scolese appeared to be pinning his hopes on the Augustine panel to decide the fate of the International Space Station (ISS). Current U.S. planning is to discontinue U.S. involvement in the ISS in the 2015-2016 time period even though construction is only now being completed, giving it a very short operational lifetime.

OSTP and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff , however, emphasized that the Augustine panel is to provide only options and pros and cons. “We haven’t asked them to make any decisions, but to give options,” according to an OMB staffer. Another added that the idea is the panel’s report will get White House attention, spurring the White House to make decisions.

SSB and ASEB members sharply questioned the requirement that the panel’s review “fit within the current budget profile for NASA Human Space Flight activities.” SSB vice-chair A. Thomas Young asserted that the requirement invalidates the study, and instead the directive should have been to “assess” the current budget. Many consider the current budget to be inadequate for any effort to expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit in the next decade. Other Board members questioned how the panel could fulfill its mandate in just three months.

Staff from the congressional committees that authorize NASA funding held other views. One commented that he doubted that the members of his committee would be willing to cede their obligation to guide the future of the U.S. space program to “an unelected committee.” Another pointed out that Congress has twice endorsed the current plan to return humans to the Moon by 2020 – once when the Republicans controlled Congress in 2005 and again when Democrats controlled Congress in 2008 – with the idea that no matter who won the White House, Congress supported the goals enunciated in 2004. Another staffer argued that there should be no constraints on what the panel considers — such as “fit within the current budget profile” — other than the fact that “we are where we are.”

ASEB member David Goldston observed that the White House and Congress have opposite views on what the Augustine panel will do: “The White House wants them to say how to stay within the existing box, and the Hill wants them to take the box apart.”

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