Holdren to Discuss Administration's Vision for NASA with NAC on April 16

Holdren to Discuss Administration's Vision for NASA with NAC on April 16

Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren is scheduled to discuss the Obama Administration’s vision for NASA with the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) tomorrow (April 16, 2014).  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Bill Gerstenmaier, will also address NAC.  The meeting comes three weeks after a tense exchange between Bolden and House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) over whether NAC Chairman Steve Squyres agrees with NASA’s contention that the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is a step towards someday sending people to Mars.

The Obama Administration is continuing its efforts to convince Congress and the space community in general that ARM should be the next step for the U.S. human spaceflight program.  It has generated little enthusiasm since it was announced almost exactly one year ago when President Obama submitted his FY2014 budget request to Congress.   ARM is an iteration of President Obama’s declaration almost exactly three years earlier, on April 15, 2010, that he was directing NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight after he cancelled the Bush-era Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface.

NASA is still developing the mission concept for ARM.  Gerstenmaier briefed NAC’s Committee on Human Exploration and Operations yesterday on competing concepts for how to carry out the mission. The two options are to try to redirect a small asteroid into a lunar orbit or to go to a larger asteroid and pluck a large sample (e.g. a boulder) from its surface and move that into lunar orbit.  Once in lunar orbit, astronauts would visit it.  Gerstenmaier focused on the value of using cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and lunar orbit as a “proving ground” for human missions beyond low Earth orbit.  He also stressed that although ARM has been characterized as a “one-off” mission, in fact it is part of an integrated plan to get humans to Mars. 

There is little disagreement that the long term goal for the U.S. human spaceflight program — in partnership with other countries and the commercial sector — should be landing people on Mars (though it is not unanimous).   For decades, the debate has been over whether or not returning to the lunar surface is a prerequisite.  Intermediate destinations, like asteroids, were rarely discussed until a committee created by President Obama shortly after taking office in 2009 posited a “flexible path” approach as an alternative that included asteroids and Lagrange points.  The committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, did not make recommendations, but laid out “Moon First,” “Mars First” and “Flexible Path” options.

Holdren is Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is largely blamed or credited, depending on one’s point of view, for choosing Flexible Path and cancelling the Constellation program.    He has testified to Congress about ARM enthusiastically, but does not appear to have won many converts.  In one sign of good news for the Administration, however, the 2014 NASA Authorization Act approved by the  House SS&T’s Space Subcommittee last week would not prohibit spending money on ARM.  That is an improvement over last year’s version of the bill, which would have done so.  That bill was never reported from committee.

Holdren’s appearance before NAC tomorrow may be an effort to win over those members of the space community, especially NAC chairman Steve Squyres, at least, about the value of ARM as part of a plan to send people to Mars.

Squyres testified to the House Space Subcommittee last year that he does not consider ARM as necessary to achieve that goal.    At another hearing three weeks ago on NASA’s FY2015 budget request, full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) challenged Bolden on that point.  Smith quoted Squyres as testifying that “I see no obvious connection between [ARM] and any of the technologies or capabilities that are required for Martian exploration.”   Smith is pushing the Mars 2021 Flyby mission as the next step in human spaceflight instead.

In a tense exchange, Smith reminded Bolden about Squyres’s testimony and Bolden replied that if Squyres were asked today, he would not hold the same position.  Smith retorted: “I don’t doubt you could put political pressure on him.”  Bolden responded:  “I put no pressure, I can’t put pressure, on Steve Squyres.”  Smith insisted Squyres’s testimony stands “unless you have other information.”  Bolden said:  “I have other information, which is talking to [him] weekly.  Steve Squyres counseled me  ‘don’t make this seem like you’re going to save the planet.  Show us, the NASA Advisory Council, how this is relevant to getting people to Mars.’  We’ve subsequently done that.”   Smith said Squyres’s testimony stands until he hears differently from Squyres.

Smith continued his criticism in an April 3 press release after Bolden made comments to two National Research Council panels that Mars Flyby 2021, Smith’s preference, is not a steppingstone to landing people on Mars.

As for convincing Squyres and the rest of NAC, Bolden, Holdren and Gerstenmaier will be there to make the case for ARM in person and in public tomorrow morning.  The meeting is at NASA Headquarters and is available remotely via WebEx and telecom.  The detailed agenda, as of today, is posted on the NAC website.  Bolden is scheduled for 9:10 am ET, Holdren for 10:00 am ET, and Gerstenmaier for 11:00 am ET.

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