Augustine Report Eagerly Awaited; NASA "Summit" in October?

Augustine Report Eagerly Awaited; NASA "Summit" in October?

If all goes according to plan, tomorrow (Tuesday, September 8) will open the next chapter in determining the future of the U.S. human space flight program. The “summary report” of the Augustine committee is due to be transmitted to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and NASA that day. How much detail will be contained in the summary report is unclear, but it should at a minimum outline the committee’s determination of which options the White House and NASA should include in their “trade space” as the future of the program is debated once more.

The Augustine committee is tasked with providing options, not making recommendations. Many who are eagerly — perhaps anxiously — awaiting the committee’s report point out that options can be written in such a manner as to telegraph intentions, and perhaps that will be the case, but one can certainly expect firm statements of findings. What is clear from the public meetings is that the committee has concluded that —

  • the current Obama budget will not allow the United States to pursue any human space flight program that involves travel beyond low Earth orbit (LEO),
  • it is time for the government to more fully embrace commercial launch providers as part of the human space flight program, and
  • the Obama Administration must plan on spending at least $1.2 billion more in FY2011 to fly out the remaining six scheduled flights of the space shuttle.

Many of the committee members also seem to have a preference for extending the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020. How they will handle the other major issues — whether additional shuttle flights should be flown beyond the six currently scheduled, what should be the next destination for human space flight if the country decides it is willing to spend the money and, if so, whether NASA should continue with Ares/Orion or choose a different architecture — is less clear from the public record.

With congressional action on the FY2010 budget and formulation of the FY2011 budget by the Administration actively underway, the key to the report’s impact is how quickly decisions are made based on it and by whom. Mr. Augustine briefed the White House and NASA several weeks ago so those officials have had time already to weigh the options and assess budgetary implications. If the decisions are made by OSTP and/or NASA, not the President himself, winning congressional support may be that much more difficult. It is important to remember that Congress has twice passed laws (the 2005 and 2008 NASA authorization acts) endorsing the current program. quotes NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director Mike Coats as telling JSC workers that Administrator Bolden “has scheduled a NASA Executive Summit for all Senior Executive Service employees in Washington on Oct 6 and 7 to discuss strategic direction for the Agency.” Whether that is a venue for further discussion about the path forward or a two-day rallying of the troops to support firm decisions already made remains to be seen.

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