As a systems engineer who helps put science experiments on the International Space Station, I certainly have a vested interest in whatever the White House decides will be the course of the human space flight program. In my heart, I believe in the importance of exploration and that the continued survival of our species will be ultimately dependent on our ability to become a truly spacefaring species. That’s the long-term view, though. We face some pretty tough realities in the near-future.
The Augustine committee has concluded that the Constellation Program to retire the Shuttle and build a new series of Ares I & V rockets and the Orion crew exploration vehicle to go back to the Moon and build a permanent outpost is not viable under the current budget. The program was designed on a promise of increased NASA funding and reduced costs from Shuttle and Station operations. Neither have yet come.
Furthermore, the committee has stated that NASA needs a $3 billion budget increase per year if it wants to do anything that involves exploration past Low Earth Orbit. They were asked to explore alternatives to the “program of record” and have offered a few, including the “Flexible Path” option I discussed in an earlier blog post.
Yesterday, Norm Augustine and Dr. Edward Crawley of MIT sat before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology to ostensibly discuss their team’s report. Instead, it was really a session for Committee chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (who is married to an astronaut) to slam the Augustine report as not supporting the Constellation program enough and set up her next speaker, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, to defend Constellation to her committee.
The problem isn’t that the Constellation Program has insurmountable technical challenges. Nor is the goal of building a lunar outpost necessarily a bad one, provided the White House and Congress actually come up with the money to do it. The problem is that our political leaders have demanded NASA perform Cadillac missions on a Civic budget for years now and we’ve come to a point where we can’t ignore that any longer.
Ares I and the Orion crew vehicle will not be ready before we retire the Shuttle. There is nothing we can do to close “the gap” except continue flying the Shuttle, which is not really a good option as many long-lead items are already out of production. Commercial providers are working hard to demonstrate cargo delivery to the Station in the hopes of being able to eventually provide crew services, but we aren’t there yet, either.
Speaking of Station, no one on the Augustine commission and few in Congress think it’s a good idea to de-orbit the ISS as soon as we finish building it and the science really begins to ramp up, so Constellation can’t rely on those program funds to go their way. Besides, Orion wouldn’t even have a destination once it is built if we de-orbit ISS before we start building the lunar outpost… which raises the question of why we would need Ares I to begin with.
While a few members of the House committee thanked Norm Augustine and his team for helping us face these truths, I am sorely disappointed in Rep. Giffords for choosing to turn her committee into a cheerleading session for the Constellation Program instead of an opportunity to honestly discuss those problems and how to resolve them.
We’re not going anywhere fast until the President and Congress articulate a coherent vision for our human exploration program and appropriate the necessary funds to execute the missions in support of that vision. I saw precious little recognition of that fact in yesterday’s hearing and a whole lot of turf protection for local aerospace jobs. Instead of bashing the Augustine commission for doing what they were asked to do by the President and deriding the alternatives they offered, our representatives in Congress should have been fairly evaluating the proposals and helping decide what this country should do in space.
Instead, they dug in their heels and just made it harder for us to change gears, if that’s what we decide we need to do.
Wired Science live-blogged the hearing yesterday. Let me know what you think.