Augustine Panel: Where the Debate Currently Stands

Augustine Panel: Where the Debate Currently Stands

The Augustine panel completed a marathon three-day set of public meetings across the South this week. The meetings in League City, Texas, Huntsville, Alabama and Cocoa Beach, Florida gave the first hints as to what panel members are thinking at this phase of the process. In addition to briefings on various aspects of the Constellation program, each of the panel’s four subgroups reported to the full panel for the first time.

Thanks to NASA TV, the public across the country had front row seats to the interaction among the panel members. The intense but friendly questioning made it clear that no decisions have been made by the panel despite news stories to the contrary.

As the panel prepares to return to Washington, DC for two more public meetings (August 5 and August 12) and complete its report to the White House and NASA by the end of the month, where does the debate stand?

The reports by Sally Ride’s subgroup on near-term issues, and by Ed Crawley’s “Beyond Low Earth Orbit” subgroup, were particularly thought provoking, but it was clear they were speaking only for themselves. The presentations were rich with content and should be posted on the panel’s website ( soon. Here are a few key points that were made.

Sally Ride’s ISS/Shuttle Subgroup

Dr. Ride’s subgroup was tasked with looking at the future of the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS), and “the gap” between the end of the shuttle and the availability of a replacement. She opened her presentation by saying that she hoped her subgroup (herself, Leroy Chiao, Charlie Kennel and Les Lyles) would not become known as the “gloom and doom” subgroup.

The reason for her caution quickly became clear. Analysis by the Aerospace Corporation that was briefed by Dr. Ride and later by Gary Pulliam from Aerospace shows that the existing Constellation program (referred to as the POR or “Program of Record”) is likely to slip by 1 _ years just for budgetary reasons if the current budget is maintained; may slip another two years for technical reasons; and if funding is diverted to the ISS program to keep it operating until 2020, another half-year slip to Constellation could result. Dr. Pulliam offered many caveats to those conclusions, including that Aerospace had only three weeks to do its analysis and that there are ways to mitigate those delays, but the message was clear – if the President wants to return humans to the Moon by 2020, more funds will be needed and soon.

During the presentations from Dr. Ride and other subgroup members, it seemed that they were making a few recommendations:

  • extend the International Space Station to 2020;
  • raise the alarm to policy makers that more funding – they estimated $1.2 billion — is needed for the space shuttle because it is highly unlikely its remaining seven flights can be completed by the end of fiscal year 2010 (September 30, 2010) but there are no funds for it in FY2011;
  • try to get one more shuttle flight added, in FY2012, to take advantage of the fact that there is one remaining external tank available and one more shuttle flight would be significant in providing logistics to the ISS, especially if the commercial (“COTS”) providers are delayed in developing their new capabilities.

However, during the Q&A, she emphasized that the subgroup only wanted to get these issues on the table and was not making recommendations. She also cautioned that not all of the money that people are assuming will be “freed” by terminating the shuttle and ISS will materialize because many institutional carrying costs simply will be transferred to the Constellation program. She expressed concern that other subgroups were building budgets based on expected savings that may not be there.

One of her comments during the question and answer period summed up her subgroup’s message:

“You can’t expect the agency to achieve grand and glorious goals if you’re not going to give them the resources that are required to do it. If our group showed nothing else we hope it showed that NASA has not been given the resources to support this Vision that now two Presidents have been supporting and that our Congress has been supporting. These are the people that should be giving the agency the money and the agency has not been given the money and we are looking at the result of that.

“So to try to fit a program into this budget that already isn’t enough and to make it more grand and glorious is almost falling into the same trap of saying, yeah, we really want to do something cool, because we all love this stuff and we want to be doing cool things, so you give us 20 bucks and we can do anything. I think that part of our job is going to be to not let the administration and Congress put NASA back in this box …”

Underscoring the lack of agreement on the panel, Mr. Augustine told Dr. Ride that at end of her presentation, he thought he saw a way forward: add budget to fly out the remaining 7 shuttle flights in a reasonable risk environment, learn to live with the gap, and keep ISS for 5 more years primarily to support future beyond LEO flight activities. “But after these clarifying discussions, I’m not sure I do” see that path, adding “We fortunately don’t have to make a decision today.”

Ed Crawley’s Exploration Beyond Low Earth Orbit Subgroup

Dr. Crawley’s subgroup was tasked with identifying and analyzing options for human space flight beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). In addition to Dr. Crawley, the subgroup members are Wanda Austin, Bo Bejmuk, Chris Chyba, and Jeff Greason. They identified five options in addition to the existing Constellation Program of Record, and invited the Constellation program itself to offer options.

The five options identified by the subgroup were:

  • “Lunar Base” – a single base at one of the Moon’s poles;
  • “Lunar Global” – a series of sortie and longer duration (up to 180 days) missions at a variety of locations on the Moon;
  • “Quickly to the Moon and Then Mars” – using the Moon only as a testing ground for systems that would be used on Mars, for example a Mars habitat (he later referred to this as “touch and go” missions to the Moon);
  • “Directly to Mars” without any lunar missions, and
  • “Flexible Path” — progressively distant human missions to “free space” destinations such as asteroids, the moons of Mars, and Lagrange points where one would not have to build systems capable of traversing the “gravity wells” of the Moon or Mars.

The Constellation program offered two options to its current plan:

  • Maintain the same content, but let the schedule slip to the right; or
  • Assume that the commercial sector can develop systems to provide human and cargo access to the ISS, releasing NASA from that part of the program and allowing NASA to develop a simplified Ares V and a more robust human lunar exploration program.

Of the eight options, Dr. Crawley recommended that six be retained for consideration by the full panel:

  • the existing Constellation Program of Record
  • the two options proposed by the Constellation program,
  • the Lunar Global option,
  • the Flexible Path option, and
  • the Quickly to the Moon and Then Mars option.

The subgroup’s report sparked considerable debate among the panel, and there certainly was interest in the Flexible Path option. However, it did not appear to this observer, at least, that the panel had made up its mind to recommend that choice as some news articles later suggested.

During the course of these meetings, panel chair Norm Augustine revealed that the White House has agreed that the panel may present four options: two that can be funded within the existing budget, and two that are outside of that constraint. As various presentations over the three days made clear, the existing budget is insufficient to complete the Constellation program currently on the books.

Though time is in short supply for the panel, the space community seems to have confidence that under Mr. Augustine’s leadership, a useful report will emerge from the panel’s intense efforts.

The question remains as to what will happed to it thereafter. As those who are seeking a solution to the NPOESS troubles are finding, the White House does not move quickly. The NPOESS Independent Review Team headed by Tom Young completed its report months ago and the White House’s response has been to set up another task force to continue to look at that problem. One can only hope that the Augustine panel recommendations lead to action instead of more study. Perhaps since human space flight is in the hands of a single agency, decisions can be made more expeditiously.

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