Future of NASA's Human Spaceflight Program Dominates NAC Meeting

Future of NASA's Human Spaceflight Program Dominates NAC Meeting

Updated August 1, 2014:  This article was updated with links to two other SpacePolicyOnline.com stories that appeared in subsequent days on related meetings.  See end.

July 30, 2014:  The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) met this afternoon (July 30) for the first part of a two-day meeting.  The members have not yet finalized any findings or recommendations, but it is clear there is a broad range of issues on their minds.  A clear consensus on what, if any, actionable recommendations to make to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had not emerged by the end of the day.  That’s tomorrow’s task.

The following is a quick roundup of what happened today.  We’ll have more on this meeting and on a separate meeting today of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in coming days (see links below).  A common topic in the two groups was NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which generated controversy in both venues.

This list highlights only the issues at NAC, which is meeting at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.  Several of the NAC committees met earlier in the week and the discussion tomorrow will include findings and recommendations from those interactions as well as the debate today among the full NAC, which consists of the committee chairs, six at-large members, and chairman Steve Squyres.  NASA Administrator Bolden was at the meeting for most of the afternoon.

NASA’s Future Human Spaceflight Program  

Not surprisingly, this topic dominated the meeting.   At the last NAC meeting, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier rolled out a new NASA roadmap that explains the connections between ARM and the long term goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s.  NAC members expressed concern at the time that while the plan itself sounded reasonable, it was not executable because of its cost — Gerstenmaier himself said that it required an increase in the human spaceflight budget above the rate of inflation.

NAC asked for a more detailed briefing at its next meeting – today – which was presented by Gerstenmaier’s deputy, Greg Williams (Gerstenmaier was in Kourou for the ATV-5 launch yesterday).

At the top level, the response today was the same – that NASA is developing a plan that is not executable.  Some members said they want to know what NASA can do with the money it can reasonably expect, while others wanted a realistic assessment of what it will actually cost to achieve the goal of getting people to Mars by the 2030s.  Tom Young said he felt that “we are collectively perpetrating a fraud” by pretending the program is executable.  He said he worries that the country will spend $160 billion on human spaceflight over the next 20 years and be only “negligibly closer” to landing humans on Mars.  However, when Squyres suggested that NAC make a recommendation that NASA publicly state what activities it would have to terminate in order to achieve the goal of humans on Mars by the 2030s absent a bigger budget, most NAC members demurred.

There also was strong debate about ARM itself.  One criticism is that President Obama’s directive in 2010 was for NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid, not to bring an asteroid to the astronauts.  Some NAC members insisted that the original goal was preferable – to visit an asteroid is its native orbit – if the real goal is to serve as a steppingstone to Mars.  Young said that when he first heard about ARM, he thought it was a joke and that it “dumbs down NASA.” “NASA is better than this,” he declared.

Another criticism is that NASA does a poor job of explaining why it is pursuing ARM.  Williams used a chart with several bullets, one of which pointed to ARM’s role in demonstrating techniques that could be used to defend Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids — planetary defense.  During questioning about those bullets, Bolden quickly chimed in to say that planetary defense is NOT a goal of ARM.   It is a goal of the Asteroid Grand Challenge, which NASA is funding at $7 million in FY2014, he said, but not of ARM. He acknowledged that because NASA is doing both ARM and the Grand Challenge, there is a lot of confusion.  “We need to get that confusion out of it.  We are not saving the planet,” he exclaimed.  However, many other NASA officials, including Williams, include planetary defense in the list of rationales for ARM.  Scott Hubbard insisted that NASA needs to have a single bullet explaining why ARM is needed, not a list of them, in any case.

There did seem to be agreement that NASA should conduct an independent cost estimate of ARM before making a decision on which of two options it will choose for the mission (Option A is capturing an entire small asteroid; Option B is going to a larger asteroid and plucking a boulder from its surface).  NASA does not plan to have an independent estimate until after the choice is made.

Space Launch System (SLS) Launch Rate 

Squyres has been a leader in stressing that launching SLS at a rate of one every 2-3 years is very risky because launch teams cannot maintain proficiency at such a low launch rate.  He raised the issue again today and many NAC members agreed it not only adds risk, but cost.  Bill Ballhaus, a past President of the Aerospace Corporation, which oversees Air Force launches of the Atlas V and Delta IV, said that for those two launch vehicles, a rate of four per year is needed to maintain expertise.   Discussion on this issue will continue tomorrow.

Launching the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Ariane 

At the very end of the meeting, Tom Young and Bill Ballhaus raised an issue about whether NASA has an adequate mission assurance role for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Europe’s Ariane rocket.   Since NASA and Europe agreed to launch JWST on Ariane on a cooperative basis (there is no exchange of funds), the JWST schedule has slipped from 2013 to 2018 and its cost has exploded to $8 billion.  Ballhaus pointed out that the Air Force has strict mission assurance criteria to ensure its satellites get into orbit safely and they are less expensive than that.  While Arianespace undoubtedly has its own criteria, he said, considering JWST’s cost, he asked whether NASA should consider renegotiating the agreement so it has a greater mission assurance role.  Others agreed that much has changed with JWST since the agreement was signed.  The group will ask for a briefing on this topic at its next meeting.

Related Stories:

The second day of the NAC meeting was summarized in:   NAC Wants Independent Cost and Technical Estimate of ARM Before Downselect (SpacePolicyOnline.com, July 31, 2014)
The SBAG meeting was summarized in: Asteroid Expert Richard Binzel: ARM is “Emperor With No Clothes” (SpacePolicyOnline.com, August 1, 2014)


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