CFR Panel: NASA, Congress Need to Embrace New Paradigm for Space Leadership

CFR Panel: NASA, Congress Need to Embrace New Paradigm for Space Leadership

A panel of space policy experts told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Thursday that NASA has an important role to play in the future, but one different from its roots.  They believe NASA, and Congress, must embrace a new paradigm where the agency leads commercial and international partnerships, rather than dominating the program.

The panel — Lori Garver, John Logsdon and Charles Miller — covered a broad range of civil space topics, but the focus was human space exploration program, particularly the role of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) between NASA and the commercial sector, and international cooperation, especially with China.

Garver is General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association and was NASA Deputy Administrator from 2009-2013. Logsdon is an eminent space policy historian and Professor Emeritus at George Washington University.  Miller has a long history in entrepreneurial space endeavors and held several positions at NASA in support of commercial space; he is now President of NexGen Space, LLC.

The PPP concept was espoused by Garver when she served at NASA and is exemplified by the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs.  The commercial cargo program was initiated by former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin under the George W. Bush Administration.   Commercial crew was a concept at that time, but the Obama Administration took the idea and ran with it.

Garver, Logsdon and Miller see those PPPs as harbingers of a new era of space exploration featuring a much greater role for innovative “new space” companies.  They view Congress and entrenched NASA-industry interests as obstacles that, for example, led to the requirement for NASA to build the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule using “old space” government procurement methods.

Garver recounted the plan the Obama Administration put forward in the FY2011 budget request, released in February 2010.  She is widely viewed as a primary architect of that plan.

The Obama plan called for cancelling the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020.   Instead, the NASA budget would get a $6 billion increase over 5 years to facilitate the development of commercial crew systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), with another $3 billion invested in “game changing” rocket technologies to enable human exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  The U.S. commitment to the ISS was extended for 5 more years (to 2020, later extended again to 2024).  No destination or timetable for human exploration beyond ISS was included, since investment in new technologies was needed before such decisions were made.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress were furious.  They had passed NASA Authorization Acts in 2005 and 2008 under Republican- and Democratic-led Congresses, respectively, endorsing the Constellation program and given little or no forewarning of the dramatic shift the President was about to propose.   Consequently, Obama was forced into a position of making a speech at Kennedy Space Center two and a half months later (April 15, 2010) setting a destination and timetable – send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 – though it did little to ameliorate the situation.

Those factors in Congress’s reaction to the Obama plan were not mentioned at the CFR event.   Instead, after Garver outlined her efforts at NASA to expand the commercial role, Logsdon said “One thing that’s holding us back is the U.S. Congress… full stop.”

The complaint was that Members of Congress often focus on the needs of their constituents and the jobs in their States and districts created by government programs.  In addition, traditional industry contractors and many inside NASA resist change.  Logsdon called it a “space industrial congressional bureaucratic classic triangle that still has a lot of power over the civil program.”

Garver went so far as to say the human spaceflight program “has become largely a jobs program.” She compared the NASA of today to what it was in the early days of the Space Age: “NASA was the very symbol of capitalist ideals … and now what we’re working with is more of a socialist … plan for space exploration, which is just anathema to what this country should be doing.”

Miller added that if the focus is only on making sure the jobs are “in your district,” human space exploration can only be accomplished by adding $5-10 billion to NASA’s budget.  Alternatively, “you can let go of control” and still have the same number of jobs by allowing “dynamic innovation” by the commercial sectorHe argued that even though three attempts to provide enough NASA funding to pursue human exploration of Mars failed (during the Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations), some people are still “grasping” for a “central plan … controlling all the strings.”

While the tone of many of the comments could be construed as negative towards NASA and the government in general, Garver stressed that it is not an either/or situation, government or commercial.  The two must work together:  “we’re not in a race, in a lane in a swimming pool that everybody is racing against each other with our own industry.  We’re in maybe a cycling race, where we should be running point in the government with others drafting behind us, and if someone comes alongside because they can pass us because they found a better way, we don’t get out our tire pump and stick them in the spokes. You know, we take the next hill that will help them go even farther.”

Miller echoed that sentiment:  “We can open space using a partnership between the best of government and the best of private industry.”

Logsdon said he is asked whether NASA is even needed any more and the answer is yes, because the government must take the risks that the private sector will not.

As for international partnerships, in addition to endorsing cooperation with NASA’s traditional partners, all three supported cooperation with China.  Logsdon believes China should be made part of the ISS program in the not too distant future.   Garver noted that space cooperation can be used as either a carrot or a stick and believes it should be used as a carrot with China to find a way to “work together peacefully.”  Garver also asserted, however, that China “basically purchased their space program from Russia,” and is not “innovating like we are, but they will get there, and their interest … in going to the Moon will likely inspire us to go back.”

Logsdon and Miller endorsed a human return to the lunar surface.   Logsdon called the Moon “an offshore island” and “I think we should stop at the Moon on the way out” to Mars.

Miller argued that landing on the Moon is a top priority for NASA’s traditional international partners and should involve commercial partnerships, too.  “We could have a strategy to go back to the Moon today that would fit within our budget and establish a permanent base there.  … It would send a great message around the world.”   He led a recently published study for NASA that concluded “we could return humans to the Moon using commercial partnerships by the end of the second term of the next President, and do it within NASA’s existing budget.”

It was the Obama Administration that terminated U.S. plans to return astronauts to the Moon, however.  Garver asserted that it did so only because there was not enough money in the budget to pay for a lunar lander and it was a “budget reality, not a ‘we’ll never go to the Moon again’ policy.”

The President’s words in 2010, though, conveyed exactly that finality: “Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned.  But I just have to say pretty bluntly here:  We’ve been there before. … There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

Garver argued that NASA now is more interested in Mars than the Moon partially because it needs to justify building the SLS.  She has made no secret of her disdain for the SLS since leaving NASA.  She supports the development of in-space fuel depots instead that would obviate the need for very large rockets.

Although she left no doubt that she sees the need for a dramatic change in how NASA approaches the future, Garver also said that NASA is “doing a lot of amazing things for the nation and the world” and there is “a lot of political support for that.”

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