Status Report

Witnesses Suggest Change of Course for NASA Human Space Flight Programs

By SpaceRef Editor
October 16, 2003
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Expert witnesses at a House Science Committee hearing today said that NASA’s current human space flight program “is not moving us toward any compelling objective, and we should make a transition out of it as soon as possible.”

All five witnesses at the hearing on “The Future of Human Space Flight” agreed with that statement, when asked by Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY).  The witnesses were Dr. Michael Griffin, President and Chief Operating Officer of In-Q-Tel and a former NASA official; Dr. Wesley Huntress, Director of the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory and a former NASA official; Dr. Matthew Koss, Assistant Professor of Physics, College of the Holy Cross;  Dr. Alex Roland, professor of history, Duke University; and Dr. Bruce Murray, Professor Emeritus of Planetary Science and Geology at the California Institute of Technology and a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.   

In response to further questioning from Boehlert, all five witnesses also agreed that “the primary reason for human exploration is the impulse to explore, rather than any more utilitarian goal – although there can be collateral benefits; that we can take on ambitious goals without massive increases in the NASA budget; and that we should avoid sacrificing other NASA programs to achieve our human space flight goals.”  In addition, Griffin, Huntress and Murray agreed that, “the long-term goal of the human space flight program should be getting to Mars, and preferably starting colonies or outposts in space.” 

Boehlert asked the questions to summarize the testimony given at the three-hour hearing.

In opening the hearing, Boehlert said,  “Today’s hearing is just the beginning of our efforts to build a national consensus” on this issue. He added, “We need to be thoughtful and deliberate and coldly analytical in putting together a vision for the future of human space flight.  It has to be a long-term vision; we’re not about to embark on any crash program – the technical challenges alone are enough to prevent that.”  Boehlert’s complete opening statement is attached.

Ranking Democrat Ralph Hall (D-TX) added, “The human exploration of space is a fundamental expectation of the American people — indeed of people all over the world.   However, we remain unwilling as a nation to commit to a clear set of goals for the human space flight program and to the resources required over the long haul to achieve them.  We can and should do better.  Rep. Nick Lampson on our Committee has reintroduced the ‘Space Exploration Act of 2003’ (H.R. 3057), which would establish a phased set of goals for America’s human space flight program, whereby the achievement of each goal helps provide the capabilities needed to attain successive goals.  I am proud to be a co-sponsor of Mr. Lampson’s bill; its adoption would go a long way towards providing a rational framework for our human space exploration investment decisions.” 

Witnesses called for a renewed sense of purpose and a more focused vision for NASA’s programs.  Huntress testified that the Space Station and Space Shuttle do not merit the risks that they entail.  He said, “[I]f space explorers are to risk their lives it should be for extraordinarily challenging reasons – such as exploration of the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, and for construction and servicing space telescopes – not for making 90 minute trips around the Earth.  The whole point of leaving home is to go somewhere, not to endlessly circle the block.”

Similarly, Murray said the current NASA programs have us “bogged down” in low-Earth orbit.

“It is hard to explain the human space flight mission to the public unless we talk about destinations,” Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Ranking Democrat Bart Gordon (D-TN) said.  “The reality is that technology programs that are not tied to specific – and agreed-upon – mission goals become very vulnerable to budget cuts or even cancellation over time.”

Koss, a scientist who has had several experiments on Shuttle missions, stated that the science currently being conducted in space is not worth the risk.  “The vast majority of physical science experiments conducted in orbit simply do not require on-board human intervention or assistance,” said Koss.  Koss argued that unless a researcher could prove that the experiment needed human interaction, it should not put human lives at risk.

Griffin said a far more ambitious NASA program could be run for $20 billion a year — about $5 billion more than NASA is currently receiving.  Huntress agreed with that figure, and Roland and Murray said a worthwhile program could probably be run with no additional funds at all.  In response to a question posed by Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Griffin said he would be willing to fund NASA at that level, even if such an increase forced cuts in university research programs.  Huntress said he would not be willing to make such a tradeoff.  All the witnesses emphasized that an Apollo-style crash program was neither necessary nor wise.  

Roland went the furthest of the witnesses in his suggestions for the current NASA program. “The United States may have a long-term future in human space flight,” he said, but “[f]or the near term…human space flight should be suspended, or at least drastically curtailed.   If the shuttle flies at all, it should fly unmanned, or at worst with a minimal crew.  The space station should be mothballed or converted to a space platform, a research facility to be visited periodically for refueling, maintenance, and changing experiments.” Roland added, “The problem, of course, is the shuttle…While it is a technological marvel, it is also the world’s most expensive, least robust, and most deadly launch vehicle.”  

Murray agreed that such a hiatus might be necessary to put human space flight on a path for future success.  He said, “[T]he political leadership of this country must also insist on NASA developing and presenting a range of realistic alternatives to its current Shuttle/ Space Station plans that can enable a credible national commitment to a paced Mars human flight program.  These alternatives necessarily should include multi-year suspensions of U.S. human flight as NASA elected to do in 1975 -1981, when NASA suspended U.S. human flight entirely after the Apollo-Soyuz mission until the first shuttle test flight in order to create the budget wedge enabling the Shuttle to be developed.   Only by considering such painful alternatives can the relentless decline into mediocrity and irrelevance of U.S. human space flight be reversed within realistic budget considerations.”





October 16, 2003

I want to welcome everyone here this morning to this important hearing.  At our previous hearings on the Columbia accident, both witnesses and Members repeatedly made the point that NASA has suffered from the lack of a clear national vision for the future of human space flight.  Over the long-term, NASA will be successful only if it is pursuing a clear and broad national consensus with sustained and adequate funding.  As the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) noted in its report, that hasn’t been the case for three decades.

Now, we ought to admit that one reason such a consensus has been lacking is that it’s hard to reach and even harder to pursue over time.  We need to be candid and realistic about that in our discussions today.  And our vision can’t be based on some dreamy, ahistorical view that we can recreate the Apollo era.

I, personally, don’t know yet what that vision for the future of human space flight should be.  Today’s hearing is just the beginning of our efforts to build a national consensus.  But I do think there are some principles and ideas we need to keep in mind as we develop a consensus.

First, any consensus has to be arrived at jointly by the White House, the Congress and NASA, and the consensus has to include an agreement to pay for whatever vision is outlined.  NASA needs to do its part by coming up with credible cost estimates and schedules for projects – something that has been sorely lacking in recent decades and something that has not been done yet for the next major human space flight project, the Orbital Space Plane.  

Second, we need to keep in mind that human space flight is not the only NASA responsibility, or, as far as I’m concerned, the most important of its responsibilities.  I think the Augustine Commission got it right back in 1990 when it listed space science and earth science as NASA’s top priorities, and added several more activities in order of importance before it got to human space flight.

Third is a related point, NASA will not have an unlimited budget.  The federal government has too few resources and too many obligations to give NASA a blank check.  Any vision that assumes massive spending increases for NASA is doomed to fail.  That is especially true in the near future when the focus should be on getting the agency’s house in order to carry out its current tasks.

Fourth, we need to be honest about the purposes and challenges inherent in human flight.  Our witnesses today are pretty honest in their testimony on this point.  The primary reason for human flight is the human impulse – some would say destiny – to explore.  Human exploration is not necessarily the best way to advance science or technology, and it certainly is the most expensive and riskiest way to do so.  I would add that nothing about China’s launch alters these statements. 

Fifth, we need to learn from the mistakes we’ve made over the past 30 years.  The Space Shuttle and the Space Station are remarkable achievements – something we are too prone to forget.  But they are also extraordinarily expensive projects – mind-bogglingly expensive compared to the original estimates – and they haven’t performed as advertised or done as much as hoped to advance human exploration or knowledge.  We have to avoid going down the same paths in the future.

So, we need to be thoughtful and deliberate and coldly analytical in putting together a vision for the future of human space flight.  It has to be a long-term vision; we’re not about to embark on any crash program – the technical challenges alone are enough to prevent that. 

We have assembled today an extraordinary panel to help us sort these issues out and I look forward to hearing from them.  Mr. Hall?

SpaceRef staff editor.