House Hearing: NASA Needs Stability, Except for Adding Back Lunar Surface Missions

House Hearing: NASA Needs Stability, Except for Adding Back Lunar Surface Missions

At Thursday’s House hearing on NASA’s past, present, and future, one point of agreement was that NASA needs stability, sustainability, and priority setting.  Still, committee members and witnesses alike advocated for restoring human missions to the surface of the Moon to NASA’s human spaceflight plan.  Only one witness, Tom Young, warned about the budget consequences of putting too many tasks on NASA’s plate.

The hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee took place as a new presidential administration is taking shape and many space program advocates worry that decisions might be made that will disrupt the progress NASA has made since 2010 in building systems to take humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  It was in 2010 that President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2020 as a steppingstone to Mars.

Intense congressional backlash led to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act wherein Congress directed the Administration to build a new big rocket and crew spacecraft — the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion – to take astronauts beyond LEO, essentially continuing that part of the Constellation program.  Obama and Congress agreed that the long term goal is landing humans on Mars, but not on whether lunar surface missions are a necessary prerequisite. 

NASA’s ongoing Journey to Mars involves missions only in lunar orbit, not on the surface. While many in Congress and the space community call for stability and continuity at NASA – no big changes like those imposed by President Obama – an exception is made for the prospect of restoring lunar surface missions.

The future of the human spaceflight program was the focus of the hearing, although the rest of NASA’s portfolio (aeronautics, space technology, earth and space science) was also discussed.

Witnesses were Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. Senator Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Gemini and Apollo astronaut Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.), former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, and former NASA and industry executive Tom Young.

Witnesses at House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing February 16, 2017.  Left to right:  Harrison Schmitt, Tom Stafford, Ellen Stofan, Tom Young. Screengrab from committee webcast.

Schmitt, the only scientist to visit the Moon, and Stafford, who orbited the Moon on Apollo 10, clearly want lunar surface missions back in the plan.  Schmitt outlined his own plan for human exploration and utilization of both the Moon and Mars: human return to the lunar surface by 2025, a lunar settlement by 2030 using public and private capital funding, lunar resource production by 2035 using private capital funding and management, fusion-powered interplanetary booster by 2035 using public and private capital funding, a Mars landing by 2040, and a Mars settlement by 2045. 

Stofan defended NASA’s current plan and said it is achievable as long as there is focus, constancy of purpose, and continued leadership.  

Young’s main argument was that, for budgetary reasons, NASA will have to choose what single path it wants to pursue.  Currently it is spending about the same amount of money per year (roughly $4.5 billion) to develop SLS and Orion as to operate the International Space Station (ISS) including the commercial crew and commercial cargo programs.  NASA and its ISS international partners are committed to operating ISS until at least 2024, but the question is what happens next. 

Young believes that NASA needs to transition LEO operations to the commercial sector and focus its efforts on putting “boots on the ground” on the Moon or Mars.  He expressed a preference for Mars because it is more “compelling.” 

From Young’s perspective, for NASA to successfully complete all that is already on its plate – operate ISS in LEO and build and launch SLS/Orion for deep space exploration– will cost $10 billion more per year.   There are “too many paths competing for the same resources,” he said.  “A choice must be made soon between LEO and exploration.”   If the program keeps going as it is, 10 years from now everyone will be disappointed because “we will be negligibly closer to landing on Mars.”

Stafford’s remarks focused on the need for SLS.  He complimented Congress for insisting that NASA build it after President Obama cancelled Constellation, but expressed concern about the planned launch rate of, at most, one per year.  He argued that there must be at least two or preferably three per year to maintain proficiency.  Schmitt, Young and Stofan all agreed on the need to launch at least twice a year.  Stofan said scientists would be happy to use any of the extra flights.

Schmitt and Gene Cernan were the last two men to walk on the Moon in December 1972.  Cernan died last month.  He was an outspoken advocate for returning humans to the lunar surface.  Legislation has been introduced in the House to name SLS “Cernan 1” in his honor.

The day before the hearing, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he had requested an internal NASA study to assess the feasibility of launching a crew on the first SLS/Orion flight instead of waiting for the second launch as currently planned. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chairs the Space Subcommittee, asked the witnesses if they thought it was feasible.

Stafford was enthusiastic, noting that the first launch of the space shuttle carried a crew.  (That was the only time in the history of human spaceflight in the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, or China that a crew was on the first flight of a new rocket.) 

Schmitt’s first response was “I have no idea,” stressing that while there will always be risks, they need to be well understood.  The question is “whether you can man-rate the system that fast” and still meet the safety requirements.  Later, however, he noted that the first “full up use” of the Saturn V rocket was the Apollo 8 mission that sent three astronauts to orbit the Moon, so the question is whether to do that again with SLS.  (There were two Saturn V launches to Earth orbit before the Apollo 8 mission.  Schmitt may have meant there had been no prior Saturn V launches to the distance of the Moon.) 

Stofan and Young endorsed Lightfoot’s plan of doing a study.

Stafford also argued in favor of reestablishing a White House National Space Council.  President George H.W. Bush was the last President to utilize a Space Council.  It was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle.  Stafford was closely involved in the Quayle Space Council, chairing the “Synthesis Group,” which wrote a report that laid out various options for sending humans to Mars in response to the first President Bush’s 1989 Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).  Stafford reminded the committee of his report, showing them a copy, and the fact that the first President Bush’s goal was to land people on Mars in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.

Although most of the hearing dealt with human spaceflight, Stofan also defended NASA’s earth and space science activities, as well as aeronautics, and some committee members asked about those programs.

Stofan made the point that while it is important to push limits and send people to Mars, “the only planet we can live on is Earth” and NASA’s earth observations are critical to understanding it.  

In response to Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), she said NASA’s earth science budget has been relatively flat in recent years when adjusted for inflation, not growing.  She listed a number of applications of earth science data that are critical to different economic sectors and have led to creation of new companies. 

More broadly, she urged Congress to continue to support NASA’s current plan to implement the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that identify key science questions that can be answered using NASA’s space and earth science spacecraft.

The bottom line of the hearing was strong support for human exploration of the Moon and Mars with scant attention to how it will be funded, other than Young’s warning.  Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) repeated the refrain that NASA’s funding should be doubled to 1 percent of the federal budget.  Whether the Trump Administration will propose a doubling of NASA’s budget, or Congress would approve it, remains to be seen.  The Members of Congress who authorize and appropriate funds for NASA clearly are enthusiasts on a bipartisan basis, but where NASA will fit in national priorities for government spending is always the question.

Scant attention also was paid to the role of the commercial sector in the future U.S. space program.   Schmitt raised it in connection with his plan for human exploration, where he envisions a critical role for the private sector in exploiting lunar resources, for example.   Young advocated turning LEO over to the commercial sector so NASA can concentrate on exploration beyond LEO.  Overall, however, the hearing was aimed at government-funded activities at NASA.

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