Consensus on the Need for a Human Spaceflight Plan, But Not on The Plan Itself

Consensus on the Need for a Human Spaceflight Plan, But Not on The Plan Itself

A House hearing yesterday (February 3) underscored the dilemma facing NASA as it looks ahead to the future of its human spaceflight program while facing a presidential transition less than a year away.  Committee members and witnesses agreed that NASA needs a plan with more specifics that it has offered so far, but not on what the plan should be.  While most accept that the long term goal should be human trips to Mars, what the steps in between should be remains as divisive as ever.

The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. chaired by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX).  Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.  The hearing was about NASA’s human spaceflight program, but in this case there were no NASA witnesses.   Instead three “outside” (non-NASA) experts shared their views:  Tom Young, an aerospace industry icon who is retired from Martin Marietta/Lockheed Martin and a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), though he was testifying only for himself not NAC; Paul Spudis, senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a fervent advocate of returning humans to Moon before going to Mars, also speaking only for himself, not LPI; and John Sommerer, retired from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab and testifying in his capacity as the former chairman of the Technical Panel of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that wrote the 2014 Pathways To Exploration report.

Republican members of the subcommittee and the chairman of the full committee, Rep, Lamar Smith (R-TX) continued their attacks on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as unnecessary and a waste of resources.   Democratic members, including the ranking Democrat of the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), did not defend ARM, and Edwards said NASA’s current Evolvable Mars Campaign strategy does not answer the question of whether an asteroid mission is a necessary element of the humans-to-Mars goal.  Johnson and Edwards reiterated their strong support for NASA to produce a roadmap for the future of the human spaceflight program as required by the 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House last year (no further action has been taken).  

None of the witnesses offered support for ARM, either, although Young noted that NAC is enthusiastic about the development of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP), which is part of the ARM program.  NAC considers SEP to be a critical element of any effort to send humans to Mars and recommended that NASA send an SEP-powered probe all the way to Mars as a test instead of to an asteroid.  NAC worries that ARM itself, as a program, will cost more than the $1.25 billion advertised by NASA officials and divert resources from the real goal of humans-to-Mars.

Sending people to Mars was widely, but not universally, accepted by committee members and witnesses as the long term goal of NASA’s human spaceflight program.  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was one exception, who thinks other missions — such as planetary defense and solving the space debris problem — are more important and champions private sector activities.  He said he believes SpaceX founder Elon Musk will get to Mars before NASA.  He and other Republican members also expressed concern about the costs involved in a humans-to-Mars mission when the national debt is so high.   Rohrabacher argued for an incremental program that can change directions if, for example, an asteroid threatens Earth and planetary defense becomes a higher priority, instead of a “20 year program of gigantic spending that will suck the money away from all the other projects” that NASA might initiate.  He said the only affordable way to send Americans to Mars is on a one-way trip.

NASA’s Evolvable Mars Campaign was criticized for lacking the specifics needed to win support, especially in a vulnerable period of time when the presidency will change hands.   Many of the committee members, Republican and Democratic, stressed the need to have a baseline program and a roadmap in place before the presidential transition to avoid another disruption like what occurred when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program.  Edwards called NASA’s Evolvable Mars Campaign a strategy, but insufficiently detailed for mission planning.   It does not answer questions such as whether a return to the lunar surface or an asteroid mission is necessary to reduce risks for the longer-term Mars goal, she said. 

The need for a “plan,” rather than a broader strategy that lacks details, was also emphasized by the witnesses.  Young calculated that if NASA’s current level of funding for human spaceflight, about $9 billion in FY2016, is maintained for the next 20 years, $180 billion will be available over that period of time.  He concludes that although this is a great deal of money, it is not enough to both send humans to Mars and support the International Space Station beyond 2024 and a choice must be made between them.  He thinks that choice should be sending humans to Mars.  He cited the 2015 study by the Planetary Society as one option for how to accomplish it, although he wants humans to land on Mars not just orbit it and he thinks it will cost more than the $180 billion. 

Sommerer said that his panel estimated that it would take 20-40 years to get people on Mars and cost “half a trillion dollars.”  He and Young both stressed that the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are just the beginning of the systems that are needed for a Mars mission.  Sommerer noted that there are only a handful of destinations for human spaceflight today — the Moon, asteroids and Mars — and what is needed is agreement on the sequence of missions with a “logical feed forward” that minimizes “dead ends,” is affordable, has acceptable development risks and a reasonable operational tempo.  The NAS Pathways committee looked at three options, but did not recommend any of them, concluding that in the current fiscal environment there are “no good pathways to Mars.”    

Later in the hearing, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) argued for adopting the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2033 — he displayed a bumper sticker with that date on it.  He asked if that could be achieved if $200-300 billion — a percent of the federal budget — was allocated over that period of time.  Sommerer replied, yes, if you have a plan —  “if you give them the date and the money and help with the discipline [to make difficult choices], the answer is yes.  If any of those three things is missing, the answer is almost certainly no.” 

Despite the consensus that a specific plan is needed, there was no agreement on what the plan should be.  Although Perlmutter wants to focus on Mars, Spudis insists that returning to the surface of the Moon first is essential, for example. The decades-long debate over Moon versus Mars remains unresolved.  Even if there might be agreement on Mars, there is debate over whether to land on the surface, as Young advocates, or put humans in orbit first as outlined in the Planetary Society report.  That makes crafting a detailed plan, especially in the few months before a new President is elected, a daunting challenge.   Without it, though, as committee members and witnesses expressed yesterday, there is concern that the current elements of the program — SLS and Orion — could end up on the chopping block. 

Young wryly commented that “We have a graveyard today … that has headstones of human spaceflight programs that consumed a lot of resources and ended up with no basic product.  I don’t think we need any more headstones in that cemetery.  What we really need [are] monuments to accomplishment.”


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