Garver Would Cut SLS, Mars 2020; Says Space Isn't Partisan, But Parochial

Garver Would Cut SLS, Mars 2020; Says Space Isn't Partisan, But Parochial

Two people viewed in the space policy community as epitomizing the differences between the Democratic and Republican views on NASA — Lori Garver and Scott Pace — were joined by Joel Achenbach and Mike Gold on today’s Diane Rehm show on National Public Radio to talk about the present and future of the space program.  Their views, along with listeners who called in with questions and Rehm herself, are quite interesting.

Garver was Deputy Administrator of NASA for four years of the Obama Administration under current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.  She left the agency in September 2013 to become General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association and has not hesitated to remain in the forefront of the debate over the space program from her new position outside of government.   Pace was one of the top NASA officials under former Administrator Mike Griffin during the George W. Bush Administration and one of the architects of the Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020, a program cancelled by Obama.   Both have held many positions in the space policy community over the decades.   Pace is currently Director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.

Achenbach is a science reporter for the Washington Post who occasionally writes about NASA, most recently last week in an article entitled “To Go Boldly (and on budget).”   Gold is director of Washington operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace, which is building inflatable modules for use in space — one will be attached to the International Space Station next year as a test and Bigelow wants to put them on the lunar surface, too.

The Diane Rehm show is one of NPR’s most popular programs and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.  It is broadcast by WAMU here in Washington, DC.

Garver made clear that she opposes the Space Launch System and the Mars 2020 mission, which is essentially a repeat of the current Mars Curiosity mission, because she believes NASA should do new and innovative things, not build rockets based on 1970s technology or redo science missions. Pace stressed the value of international cooperation in space and argued that returning humans to the Moon is the type of mission that would attract international partners.

The program is worth a listen.  Here are some of the key discussion points.

  • Rehm started by asking about Bolden’s recent statement (first reported here) that there would be no more flagship science missions, which Achenbach mentioned in his recent article where he added that the statement comes at a time “when the universe is screaming to be explored.”
      Rehm wanted to know if that means NASA needs more money.   

    • Garver disagreed that the problem is money, noting that NASA’s budget is greater than the sum of the budgets of all the other space agencies around the world, but it needs to focus on doing new and innovative things that return “real value here on Earth.”
    • Pace pointed out that the science community sets its own priorities through Decadal Surveys and “all the easy stuff has been done” so what needs to be done now is expensive.
    • Rehm asked whether the private sector can make up the difference, but Achenbach said he doubted the private sector would do the expensive science missions.
  • Achenbach brought the discussion back to whether NASA has enough funding, saying that NASA is trying to do a lot of things on a flat budget including building the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, commercial crew and space science.  He reminded Garver that she said in his recent article that SLS and Orion “created a crunch for NASA.”
    • Garver agreed that it’s all about trade-offs and NASA has “fed” a lot of constituencies over the decades and “Space isn’t partisan, it’s parochial.”  Those who develop big rockets want to keep developing big rockets and those who develop Mars missions want to continue developing Mars missions, she said, which is why NASA is doing the Mars 2020 mission rather than “driving in a new direction on Europa.”  [Europa is a moon of Jupiter with a liquid ocean under an icy crust and another top priority for the planetary science community.]
    • Pace said the question of priorities is why the nation needs a political discussion about what the country wants NASA to do.
  • Rehm then asked if the country should return astronauts to the Moon
    • Pace said yes, not just because he has “a fondness for lunar science,” but because it would bring other countries along with us, including India “and I’ll also say it, China.”
    • Garver disagreed, saying that sending people to the Moon was a great goal in the 1960s, but we should do it again only when there’s a purpose to it, which is not the case now.
    • Achenbach asked Pace about the Obama decision to cancel Constellation.  Pace said he thought that was a bad decision, but stressed that it really is a two-part issue dealing with a program and a strategy.  Constellation was a particular program to implement the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) strategy and there could have been other programs to implement VSE, but Obama chose not only a different program, but a different strategy.
  • Rehm later asked Pace to talk more about why international cooperation is important.
    • Pace:  “the rules in any new environment are made by the people who show up, not by the people who stay behind.”  It is important to the United States that space be “a stable, quiet and peaceful environment” because we rely on it.  “If we want to shape that environment” we have “to bring other countries along with us.”
  • Discussion turned to human spaceflight versus science when Achenbach asked whether NASA’s focus should be science and quoted NASA science chief John Grunsfeld as saying that “science should be at the core of NASA” and, separately, that the Asteroid Redirect Mission is not a science mission. 
    • Garver said that focusing NASA on science would be difficult and unprecedented.  Human spaceflight has been driven by geopolitical goals, she said, and if science was the only goal, it would be a much smaller agency.  She noted that NASA’s science budget is $5 billion and that money should be spent on doing new things rather than being “shaped more by the status quo.”
    • In response to a listener’s question about robotic science missions and why they are “first on the chopping block,” Garver said there are science programs that need more attention, like heliophysics and Earth science, astrophysics missions like Kepler, and studying asteroids.
    • Achenbach noted that the planetary science program was cut “precipitously,” but added that Mars Curiosity ran almost $1 billion over budget and the James Webb Space Telescope  (in the astrophysics program) is “many billions over budget,” which also adds to budget stresses.
  • Mike Gold joined the discussion by phone at this point for a few minutes.   Achenbach challenged Gold on a comment Robert Bigelow made recently that he wants the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to clarify what the private sector can or cannot do on the lunar surface in light of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that prohibits countries owning the Moon (or other celestial bodies).
    • Gold said that it’s not specifically property rights, but that the private sector needs to be certain that it can operate on the Moon in a “safe and secure environment” where, “if we put the money into” building a base on the Moon, we can “operate on a non-interference and non-impingement basis … not that we own it,” but that “we wouldn’t face interference from other domestic entities.” 
    • Rehm exclaimed that she didn’t understand what Gold meant because the “language you’re using” sounds “proprietary” and one cannot own the Moon.   Gold began answering, but apparently the show ran out of time for that segment (music began playing) and he was not able to fully respond.  Rehm said it “sounds confusing to me,” and cut him off.  That was the extent of his participation in the program.
  • Rehm later pressed Garver to identify two programs she would cut at NASA.
    • Garver:  I would cut programs “that are built on previous technology … like the huge rocket called the Space Launch System,” which was “dictated” by Congress because of the Orion spacecraft and “a holdover” from the Constellation program.  “It’s $3 billion a year.”    “Where is it going to go?  When will it even fly?”   
    • As for the second program, Garver said she would cut Mars 2020.  “I would not redo the Curiosity mission, I would invest that planetary science mission in doing something new like Europa or going to Mars in a more creative and innovative way where we can drive technology.”
  • Achenbach then asked Pace about his position on SLS and Orion.
    • Pace said the advantage of Constellation was that it started with the smaller Ares I (needed for the Moon), with the larger Ares V (needed for the Mars mission) waiting until after commercial crew and cargo systems were developed.  “It was a very, very tightly integrated system that proceeded out in a logical fashion.”
    • Garver stressed again that SLS is being built on 1970s technology.  “Would you really go to Mars with technology that’s 50 years old?  That’s not what innovation and our space exploration program should be all about.”
  • Rehm then asked about SpaceX.
    • Achenbach said Elon Musk is clear on what he wants to do — put thousands of people on Mars.  He added that SpaceX offices have pictures of Mars as “terraformed with water and plants” because they envision “human destiny is there.”  He also talked about SpaceX’s recent first launch to geostationary transfer orbit and SpaceX’s goals to capture part of the military space launch business.  “They’ve gone from being a startup to being a major player.”
    • Pace praised SpaceX for bringing commercial launches back to the United States.
    • Garver praised SpaceX for “doing things in new ways” and reducing the cost of launch and “that is what we should be doing in our space program, driving innovation and help this country again lead the world.”
  • A listener called in and wanted to know why anyone would spend billions to send people to Mars when so much can be accomplished virtually today.
    • Garver said she believes “there is a human imperative to explore,” but agrees that a lot can be done virtually.   The billions of dollars that are spent on human spaceflight should be only for things that return value.    “I don’t think we should keep reliving the past” like Apollo.  It’s like nostalgia for old cars, which is “not what we need today.”

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