Human Spaceflight Committee Releases Its Report

By Keith Cowing
October 22, 2009
Filed under
Human Spaceflight Committee Releases Its Report

After an extended period of writing and editing, the Augustine Committee’s final report was delivered to the White House yesterday. Today it was released to the public at a media briefing held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

The Augustine Committee – named after its chair, Norm Augustine – is formally known as the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. The Committee was chartered earlier this year by the White House under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). As such, its deliberations and other activities are done pretty much in the open.  With the advent of web streaming, and other social networking tools, nearly everything that the committee did was done in full view of the public.

As such there should have not been any surprises contained in this report.  That said, people still expected to see something new today such as the cancellation of Ares 1 or the selection of a new heavy launch vehicle. None of that happened. It was never going to happen.

In a nutshell, the Augustine Committee viewed NASA’s current human spaceflight program as being in a time of transition. Mounting costs and technical challenges had resulted in the current approach being deemed as unable to meet the goals it was intend to accomplish.

The Committee was specifically asked not to prove recommendations but instead, to provide options (5 were presented) as to what the White House might want to have NASA do. That said, the Committee’s options clearly had self-evident recommendations buried just under the surface.

While the Augustine Committee got an earful from a large cast of characters, at the end of the day they did not seek to dispute the technical competency of NASA’s Constellation program. More than once Augustine said that the problems that NASA had been encountering with the Ares rockets and the Orion capsule were to be expected in complex programs of this sort and that the programs  “were reasonably well managed” and that they were “likely to succeed”.

What they did not shy away from was noting how the current architecture or “program of record” did not match up well with the fiscal resources required to make things work. Moreover, due to funding and technical issues, the architecture no longer matched up well with what they thought NASA should be doing.  Augustine said that this was not an issue  of “whether NASA could build Ares but rather if NASA should build Ares”.

When the current architecture or program of record was first envisioned, former Administrator Mike Griffin promised that it would close the looming gap between Shuttle retirement and the advent of this new system. Instead, that gap widened due to fiscal issues as well as technical problems.  As it now stands the International Space station (ISS) – the initial destination for Orion, would be “at the bottom of the Pacific ocean”, according to Augustine, by the time that Ares 1 became operational. The current estimate of Ares operations is around 2017.  

As such Augustine said that the committee felt that there was a “compelling reason” to extend the orbital lifetime of the ISS perhaps to 2020 and to “provide additional funds to utilize the ISS.”  There’s one problem with that. Given NASA’s anticipated budget, that money would have to come from somewhere and would likely serve to delay Ares 1 operations even more.

Since the Space Shuttle is slated for retirement in 2010, Augustine noted that the flight rate needed to make this happen and complete ISS assembly would be about twice the current rate. There was not a lot of confidence that this could be done. Therefore, Augustine he said that the committee felt that it would be prudent for funds to be added to the FY 2011 budget to support the final few shuttle flights.

Again, the focus as Augustine tried to explain it was not on the technical design of Ares or Orion, but rather whether it was now the right approach to be taken. Back when it was first proposed according to Norm Augustine and Committee member Ed Crawley, Constellation (Ares and Orion) was the right answer. But evaporating funding has since changed that.

Given the changing environment, Augustine said that his committee felt that there was “too much capability” in the Orion/Ares 1 system when a “simple space taxi” or “Modern Gemini” approach would suffice.  He also repeated a comment often heard during the Committee’s deliberations that NASA should not be “running a trucking service to low Earth orbit” but rather focusing on expanding outward.

While no specific recommendations were offered, a few salient points emerged as having guided the committee’s thinking. One core idea is that Mars is the ultimate destination for human space flight.  That said, the committee also decided that an option whereby NASA would go directly to Mars without any intermediate steps would be untenable due to outstanding technical and safety issues. 

Instead, the Committee came up with an approach they called the “Flexible Path” whereby you buy your capability one piece at a time but then make use of it one piece at a time as you accrue that capability. As experience progresses, additional capability is brought to bear. In looking at the various options that the committee offered it is clear that new destinations along this flexible path are contemplated such as visiting Near Earth Objects  or even one of Mars’ two moons.

Curiously, this approach contained echoes of the “spiral development” and “pay as you go” approach used by Craig Steidle when he ran NASA’s exploration programs under former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe shortly after President Bush announced the so-called “Vision for Space Exploration” in 2004.  Isn’t that curious.

Augustine noted that there are many things you could do with this approach. For example, a trip to do a circumnavigation of Mars or a rendezvous with Phobos or Deimos  while requiring more time, would be less costly in terms of energy than landing people on the Moon.

Capabilities and destinations aside, Augustine noted that committees such as this one often get caught up in the destinations and how to get there and that they often neglect why we should want to go to one place instead of another. He likened the passion of space advocates to religion but noted that they were all “of different religions”. This is something NASA needs to work on as well.

Once a plan is decided upon, NASA still has to make it work. In order to make all these things happen, Augustine said that the committee felt that the NASA Administrator needed more flexibility in adjusting the work force (up or down if need be) and to adjust the physical resources that it uses to accomplish its projects.  Right now that flexibility is not present – the net result being that NASA is required to sustain a existing overhead in terms of personnel and facilities – even if it is not the right size or composition for the tasks at hand.

Finally, there is the issue of how all of this space stuff connects with – and represents the interest of – the taxpaying public. While the committee made unprecedented use of the Internet and social media tools as well as traditional public hearings, they still only touched a miniscule portion of the population.  

As the White House and NASA ponder how to re-focus NASA’s human space flight activities, there needs to be much more attention paid to the relevance of these activities and making certain that their conduct is explicable to a wider audience than is currently the case.

Watching reaction to the recent LCROSS mission and its lack of a large blinding flash underscores this point. People seemed to think that the explosion was the reason for the mission – not the science.  Small wonder given the hype that NASA helped to stir up.  And regardless of whether the flash was important, many people questioned why NASA needed to be spending $79 million just to create a fireworks display. Again, NASA cannot be expected to satisfy the doubts of all of the people – all the time, but some better background explanations would have helped.

And next week Ares 1-X will be launched – a rocket that many think does not really serve a purpose while others say that it will provide valuable data.  Everyone wants it to work, but there is always the chance that it will not. Is NASA ready to deal with failure?

Back in the 60’s when everyone understood – and agreed with – what NASA was doing, failures were tolerated and overcome. Today NASA no longer has that luxury.  As such, anything that NASA can do to enhance a public understanding of what it does – and do so in a way that truly resonates with people – can only serve to make things easier to accomplish.   The time is now long past when NASA can just hope and expect people to understand what it does and why it does it.  

These sort of committees appear with some regularity. Each time they produce a pretty report with lofty suggestions, options, recommendations, etc.  Yet with almost equal regularity they soon get ignored until such time as the process needs to repeat it self.

At some point one of these reports has got to “stick” and make the transition from suggestion to reality. Will this one “stick”?  We’ll see.  Its up to the White House now.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.