NAC: NASA Connects the Dots on Future Human Spaceflight Plan, But Is It Affordable?

NAC: NASA Connects the Dots on Future Human Spaceflight Plan, But Is It Affordable?

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) gave NASA kudos for better articulating its plans for the future of the human space flight program, but is not convinced the program is affordable.  They chose not to issue any findings or recommendations on that topic at the two-day meeting that ended yesterday and will continue their deliberations in July.

Budget realities were a prevalent theme throughout the two day meeting.  Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren spoke with the Council on Wednesday and portrayed President Obama as a strong supporter of NASA “tempered only by the painful realities of these budgetary times.”  “I’ve often said NASA is 20 pounds of mission in a 10 pound budget,” he added, and offered no cause for optimism that NASA’s budget situation will change anytime soon.  Noting that some people have petitioned the White House to double NASA’s budget, he replied that instead “we have to double or triple what we can do … with every dollar.”

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden joined Holdren at the table and both spoke on a broad range of NASA issues, but the human spaceflight program was the elephant in the room.   Tom Young, one of six new members of NAC, confronted the issue head on, telling the two that they were communicating that the United States has a sound human spaceflight strategy, but some think it is more of a “passion and a dream than a strategy” because strategies need adequate resources to be executed.

Bolden replied that there has never been a time when a strategy has been properly resourced and trying to develop budgets for programs that have 30 year time horizons, like sending people to Mars, is especially challenging.   While acknowledging that “we don’t have what really would be a valid strategy that the common man would accept,” he stressed that NASA is “working on a plan that at least identifies the milestones to get there.”

NAC Chairman Steve Squyres asked Holdren directly about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  He wanted to know whether ARM satisfies President Obama’s 2010 directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid or whether the agency is expected to still do that after ARM (where the asteroid will be brought to the astronauts).    Holdren replied that the President’s 2010 directive was “laid out with very broad brushstrokes” and ARM is “consistent” with it.  The overall goal is to make technological and operational advances relevant to protecting Earth from asteroids as well as potentially exploiting them commercially and to establish U.S. presence near and beyond the Moon as a steppingstone to Mars.  “Exactly how that gets done is still evolving,” he said.  He praised ARM as an “incredibly valuable” mission because it serves so many purposes using technology already under development in the current budget.

NASA human spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier next took the podium and set the context for ARM within NASA’s long term human spaceflight plan.   His key message is that NASA has an incremental, step-by-step strategy to send people to Mars, but budget constraints will limit the pace of the program and committing to a specific time for when people will land on Mars should be avoided.

The first step beyond low Earth orbit is cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and lunar orbit.  That is where the Space Launch System (SLS) will send Orion on its first crewed missions beginning in 2021 whether or not an asteroid is there, he said.   NASA is looking at several candidate asteroids for ARM and the 2024-2025 time frame appears more likely for when an asteroid (or a piece of one), redirected from its native orbit by a robotic probe launched probably in 2019, would arrive in lunar orbit.  The key, Gerstenmaier emphasized, is to test spacecraft systems and human adaptation to spaceflight in cis-lunar space as a step towards Mars whether or not an asteroid is there.   As for landing humans on Mars, he does not think that is likely by the 2030s under current budget projections.

NASA Administrator Bolden often talks about landing people on Mars in the 2030s as NASA’s goal although President Obama’s space policy calls only for putting humans into orbit around Mars by that time.  Developing landing systems to get from orbit to the Martian surface will be extremely challenging and expensive as exemplified by the Mars Curiosity rover’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” landing sequence.  Curiosity is much smaller than the mass needed to land humans on the planet.

Many NAC members praised Gerstenmaier’s articulation of the long term plan, but were struck by the first of his six “strategic principles” for implementing the program:  “Executable with current budget with modest increases.”

Gerstenmaier explained that he cannot make progress towards these goals if his budget grows only at one percent per year as currently forecast.  While he has not defined how much “modest” is, he said it would be “disingenuous” for him to say he could accomplish the plan without an increase.   His message was that with a modest budget increase, progress could be made, albeit on an incremental basis and at a slower pace than many would prefer.

Wanda Austin, another of NAC’s six new members, questioned why, then, he was presenting a program he knows is not affordable since the chances of increased funding are so slim.   She and two other NAC members (Charlie Kennel and Les Lyles) served on the 2009 Augustine committee that reviewed NASA’s human spaceflight program at that time and concluded NASA’s budget would have to be increased by $3 billion a year to accomplish a human spaceflight program “worthy of a great nation.”

That increase never materialized and now, five years later, it seems as though NASA is back on an unaffordable path.

Austin’s views were widely shared by other NAC members.  Yesterday, the Council considered a draft finding from its Human Exploration and Operations Committee that would have endorsed NASA’s human spaceflight strategy as presented at this meeting.  The Council decided it could not adopt such a finding without adding a cautionary statement that it does not reflect budgetary reality.  Rather than attempting to modify it on the spot, they decided to table the finding and make this topic a major focus of their next meeting in July.

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