Stability, Leadership Are Keys To Future Space Program, Witnesses Tell Senate Subcommittee

Stability, Leadership Are Keys To Future Space Program, Witnesses Tell Senate Subcommittee

Witnesses appearing before a Senate subcommittee last week stressed repeatedly that stability and leadership are keys to the future of the U.S. space program.   More money would be nice, they said, but stability is critical.

Steve Squyres, chair of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), pointed to the mismatch between what NASA is being asked to accomplish by Congress and the Obama Administration versus the resources the agency is provided to meet those goals.  In particular, he is concerned about the “pay as you go” approach to funding the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft.  That “can result in slow progress if funding levels are not adequate” and the low flight rate could threaten program momentum and the need to keep “flight teams sharp and mission ready.”   He also highlighted the lack of funds for the other parts of a system needed to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit — hardware to keep crews healthy on long duration missions far from Earth and a lunar lander for “a lunar surface mission which also is to be a stepping stone to Mars.”

A lunar landing mission is not part of the Obama Administration’s plan, but Squyres apparently agrees with the late Neil Armstrong and others who insist that a return to the Moon is a necessary step in future human space exploration.  President Obama believes the next step should be a human mission to an asteroid in 2025.  His program includes no missions to land on either the Moon or Mars through the 2030s; orbiting them, yes, but not landing.

Squyres concluded that the current budget is “insufficient” to carry out the administration’s plan and identified four options to proceed:

  • keep trying to do everything “with an inadequate budget, running the risk of lengthy delays and a job poorly done”;
  • making “painful choices” about what to eliminate in order to preserve funding for higher priorities;
  • increasing the budget “although I realize that might be difficult in a constrained budgetary environment”; or
  • forging strong international partnerships.

Jim Maser, President of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, agreed that a lunar lander will be needed “eventually,” expressing skepticism about the asteroid mission and saying that “fallback plans” are needed.    His main point, however, was the need for “an enduring vision” and a “consistent, clearly articulated budget” to execute it.  Lamenting the Obama Adminstration’s change in direction “with what appears to be limited coordination and consent from Congress” which led to Congress “being compelled to be prescriptive” in law regarding what NASA should build, he called for “an enduring stable vision … that’s set by the President in alignment with Congress and budgets in a consistent manner that enables execution over timeframes that extend beyond a single administration or congressional election cycle.”

Charles Kennel, chair of the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Space Studies Board, also called for “consistency of vision and goals as essential to achieving leadership in space.” His testimony focused on the importance of the United States maintaining leadership, especially in space science.  The NRC just completed a series of decadal surveys on the various aspects of space and earth science, including biological and physical science research aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  Kennel said the ISS “guarantees our leadership” for a decade in human spaceflight, but asked what comes next.  Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC in FY2012 (which ends on September 30) to conduct a study and make recommendations on the future of the human spaceflight program.   Kennel said the members of that study committee are about to be announced and will be a “distinguished” group.

Kennel and Squyres both lamented the cancellation of NASA’s cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) on robotic Mars exploration because of cutbacks in the FY2013 budget request.   ESA is now partnering with Russia on the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions instead of NASA, but financial difficulties still must be resolved.   Despite the United States leaving ESA in the lurch, the potential of international cooperation to enable achieving bold goals in space was heralded at the hearing.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who is retiring at the end of this term, asked whether NASA’s mission should be more narrowly focused by moving aeronautics elsewhere, for example.   Squyres, Kennel and Maser all argued against it, pointing out that the aeronautics budget is so small it would not make much of a difference in pursuing NASA’s space activities and that aeronautics research is critically important to the nation.   Squyres, who is a planetary scientist, said that as chair of NAC he has come to learn a lot about NASA’s aeronautics program. “Disrupting the program — trying to rip it out of the place where it’s found such a good home and place it somewhere else could be detrimental to what I think is one of the best things that NASA does,” he said.

Squyres is best known as the principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed on Mars in 2004.  He also chaired the recent NRC decadal survey on planetary science.   Robotic Mars exploration was one focus of the hearing, which led off with witnesses representing the Mars Curiosity mission that landed on Mars last month.  Fuk Li, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Exploration Directorate and CalTech’s John Grotzinger, Curiosity’s lead scientist, updated the subcommittee on the Curiosity mission.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), chair of the subcommittee, asked about the utility of SLS for science missions.  Similar in capability to the Saturn V that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon, the SLS will be optimized for human spaceflight missions, but Nelson asked about other missions SLS could enable.   Kennel offered that a mission to deflect an asteroid that might impact the Earth is one possibility, along with robotic sample return missions from Mars.  Squyres said that human missions to asteroids and Mars could be important from a planetary science standpoint.  He pointed out that the science that has been achieved with the Opportunity rover over eight years could have been accomplished in a week or week-and-a-half with a human crew.

The September 12 hearing was before the Science and Space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.    

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