Senators Want Continuity for NASA's Exploration Program

Senators Want Continuity for NASA's Exploration Program

A recent Senate committee hearing focused on how to ensure that the human spaceflight program avoids another dramatic change when a new President takes office next year as it did in 2009. While most of the hearing dealt with maintaining the status quo amid political change, one witness, Mike Gold of SSL, looked more to the future and the need for a synergistic relationship between government and private sector space activities.

The hearing before the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on July 13 was chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).  This was only the third space hearing he had called since becoming subcommittee chairman last year. summarized his February 24, 2015 hearing on human spaceflight and commercial space and his March 12, 2015 hearing on NASA’s FY2016 budget request.

Joining him were the top Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), the top Democrat on the full committee Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and subcommittee member Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), who introduced Gold, a Montana native.

Peters and Nelson explicitly said they want to pass a new NASA authorization bill before the end of the Congress, and Cruz inferred it by saying that the subcommittee wants to provide NASA with security and stability and he would work with Peters to achieve that.  Nelson made clear that he wants to extend the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) to the end of the decade, instead of the current U.S. commitment of 2024.

The last NASA authorization bill was passed in 2010.  Its policy provisions remain in force, but its funding recommendations covered only through FY2013.  The House passed a bipartisan 2015 NASA authorization bill by voice vote in February 2015, but the Senate has not taken it up or introduced an alternative.  (A 2016-2017 NASA authorization act was approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology committee on a party-line vote last year; no further action has occurred.)

One known area of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is NASA’s earth science program.  Democrats strongly support it while Republicans argue that NASA should focus on exploration and other agencies should be responsible for studying Earth. Time is running short for passing anything other than appropriations bills, but if all parties on both sides of Capitol Hill can reach agreement, it is certainly possible to get a bill passed by the end of the year.

The goal of passing a bill that codifies congressional intent on the future of the human spaceflight program is to try and avoid the disruption that occurred when President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020 and then go on to Mars.  Cruz wanted to know what lessons were learned from the cancellation of Constellation and the consequences if the current Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs were similarly cancelled.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, emphasized that the situation today is quite different because so much progress has been made on SLS
and Orion, which are only two years away from their first launch.  Cancelling them would have the same “dire” effect as terminating Constellation.  “There’s a passion that sits below us and when you cancel a program … for seemingly a trivial reason, that is very devastating to our workforce and that can have huge implications to this nation, to our culture, to our psyche, and to our world leadership.”

Constellation was cancelled for complex political and budgetary reasons that few in the space policy community would characterize as trivial, but he may have been expressing his perception of the workforce’s viewpoint.  In any case, he said he hopes the situation is not repeated.

Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, cautioned against the negative consequences of cancelling programs for companies, especially small businesses.  A lack of “constancy of purpose” could “kill small companies,” many of which are members of the Coalition, she said.  Purdue University Professor Dan Dumbacher, a former NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration, similarly called for “continuity of purpose and execution” in order to “avoid loss of momentum.”

Mark Sirangleo, Vice President, Space Systems Group at Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) praised the public-private partnership (PPP) model that NASA is using for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs.   Although SNC did not win one of the two commercial crew contracts (SpaceX and Boeing were the winners), its Dream Chaser spacecraft did recently win one of three CRS2 commercial cargo contracts (along with SpaceX and Orbital ATK).

Gold, who spent a decade as head of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace before moving to SSL earlier this year, went further in his enthusiasm for the PPP model and using it to transform low Earth orbit (LEO).  “The future of LEO remains squarely on the shoulders of the private sector,” he argued, since the government is unlikely to build a replacement for the ISS.   The challenge is to create private sector demand.  He believes the solution is in-orbit satellite manufacturing and satellite servicing.  The geostationary communications satellite industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, he said, so NASA and the private sector should “follow the money.”  “The primitive days of building a satellite, launching it, and throwing away a piece of hardware worth hundreds of millions of dollars simply because it ran out of fuel is coming to an end.”

When asked if the private sector should be in charge of developing new rockets like SLS instead of the government, he argued that it is not an either-or situation.  There is synergy between the two and SLS is a case in point, opening up “all kinds of opportunities for the private sector” in cis-lunar space, for example.

In the shorter term, keeping SLS and Orion on track during the presidential transition was a major theme for the subcommittee and other witnesses. Gerstenmaier pleaded that Congress avoid “overly specifying requirements” and allow technical experts to determine how best to achieve the goal of moving human presence into the solar system.  Dumbacher quipped that there are two problems to overcome – gravity and red tape – and gravity can be solved.

Gerstenmaier strongly defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as an “excellent” way to demonstrate and learn the skills needed to send crews to Mars.

As the hearing concluded, Nelson asked Gerstenmaier what lessons were learned from the Orbital ATK and SpaceX commercial cargo failures in 2014 and 2015 respectively.  Gerstenmaier responded that he learned how quickly the private sector can react and find solutions. Orbital ATK found an alternative launch service provider (United Launch Alliance) to continue launching its Cygnus cargo spacecraft while it solved the problem with the Antares rocket. SpaceX diagnosed the problem with its Falcon 9 rocket and was in a test facility to verify it within two days.  That was “faster than I could have ever done.. …It would have been half a year” to get the contracts and test sequence in place. “I think what we really learned is that the private sector, if we give them the right incentives and we have the contracting structures set up, they can deliver the capabilities that we, at NASA, need in a very effective manner.”

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