ISS, Aerospace Workforce and Partnerships Should Be Prominent in NASA's Strategic Planning, Say House Hearing Witnesses

ISS, Aerospace Workforce and Partnerships Should Be Prominent in NASA's Strategic Planning, Say House Hearing Witnesses

At a congressional hearing Wednesday focused on a National Research Council (NRC) report that examined NASA’s strategic plans, witnesses agreed that there is a lack of national consensus and of support of a human mission to an asteroid, but did not identify what the agency’s next destination beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) should be. Instead, they drew attention to elements that should be prominent in the agency’s future: utilization of the International Space Station (ISS), international and public-private partnerships, and support of the aerospace workforce.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (HSS&T) agreed with the main conclusion of the NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus report and called the current agreement in the 2010 NASA authorization act “a compromise” where “no one got everything they wanted.” He expressed interest in discussions to forge a new national consensus and repeatedly expressed that ISS utilization remains the top priority. “To me, the ISS is number one,” he said.

Dr. Scott Pace, director of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said he agreed “that the space station is the most immediate and vital thing we have to be focused on,” but that thought must be given to what comes next. Of particular concern to him is the eroding perception of the United States by its international partners due to recent decisions to pull back from joint space missions, such as ExoMars. Pace argued that potential international partners would find in a mission to the Moon the opportunity for the kind of meaningful engagement that will not be open to them if the nation were to choose the much more difficult destinations of an asteroid or Mars.

A return trip to the Moon by astronauts was the focus of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004. Included in this vision, the Constellation Program would have led to the development of a new crew capsule and heavy lift launch vehicle for human spaceflight beyond LEO. Pace was a high ranking NASA official when Constellation was being developed.

The cancellation of the Constellation program by the Obama Administration in 2010 was cited by several members and witnesses as disruptive and what led to the policy instability and lack of consensus identified in the NRC report. Constellation provided a transition both for the workforce and for national capabilities beyond the Space Shuttle, they argued, adding that, instead, current plans only added risk to the future of the ISS by forcing dependence on the Russian Soyuz rocket for access and created persisting uncertainty.  It must be noted, however, that continuation of the ISS, now agreed to be a priority by most in the human spaceflight community, was not part of the VSE. In fact, funding for the new crew transportation systems under Constellation was predicated both on the cancellation of the Space Shuttle in 2010 and U.S. termination of its role in the ISS in 2015-2016.

In her testimony, Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) President and Chief Executive Officer, Marion Blakey cautioned against disruptions that could negatively impact the workforce and industrial base if a new direction is set for the agency. “We need to think carefully,” she said,” about changing from current programs. It not only takes consensus to do so, it takes resources and capabilities, some that we’re already building today.” She added that “NASA needs stable, long term investment and stable policy goals,” and said, smiling that “more funding would be better.”

Yet even if a new national consensus is forged, the possibility of increased funding for NASA is highly unlikely. Major General (Ret.) Ronald Sega, vice-chair of the NRC Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction that authored the report, said that this was one of the assumptions they were asked to incorporate in their analysis.  Hall, in turn, noted that “We can’t go to Mars until our people can go to the grocery story…The economy has to improve before NASA funding increases.”

For some, this restrained funding scenario means that NASA ought to pursue partnerships more aggressively, not just with its international partners, but also with the private sector. The Honorable Robert Walker, executive chairman of the lobbying firm Wexler and Walker and former chair of the HSS&T Committee, described public-private partnerships as “the best way to obtain the resources so vitally needed to make NASA’s missions achievable.” He said that NASA must expand its funding base beyond Congress and advocated for “non-traditional” and “entrepreneurial” strategies that could lead to sponsorship funds and to a future with vehicles such as  a “GoDaddy rover” (in reference to the website hosting company) one day traversing the Martian terrain.  Walker said that the HSS&T should find a way for NASA to be able to engage with the private sector in these kinds of partnerships on a routine basis.

Partnerships would also help address another key concern: the long-term sustainability of a reduced and aging aerospace workforce. Witnesses agreed that partnerships with academia and the private sector can enable valuable hands-on experience and can continue to inspire students to pursue STEM careers. University of Michigan’s Dr. Thomas H. Zurbuchen argued that NASA should actively pursue low-cost and modest-sized missions that engage universities and industries in order to ensure that “missions have access to the very best talent.”

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