President’s New Space Commission has its First Meeting

By Keith Cowing
February 12, 2004
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President’s New Space Commission has its First Meeting
Moon mars

In announcing his new space policy last month, President Bush also announced a commission whose job it was to see the policy through its initial birth pangs.

That committee met for the first time on Thursday. Chaired by former Deputy Defense Secretary Pete Aldridge, the nine member “President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Policy” has 120 days to produce a report for the President.

In opening the hearing Chairman Aldridge said that the Commission was assembled “because the President has asked us to chart the course to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond.”

Aldridge made it very clear what the Commission’s task were – and what they were not with regard to the President’s recently announced space policy. “Our purpose is implementation. We are not here to challenge the content of the policy. That decision has already been made”

Aldridge characterized he policy as having “sustainability and affordability” as key components with the customer for this policy being “the president and the American people.” The word ‘Sustainability” would echo again and again through out the day’s meeting.

Aldridge outlined four major themes he foresaw as driving the Commission’s efforts: the science and technology needed to implement the policy; the education of our youth in order to implement a long term strategy; development of the management skills needed to make things happen, and assuring prosperity for the US and for all mankind.

A series of witnesses were invited to give the views of the larger aerospace community as well a look back at previous Presidential space policy activities.

Industry speaks

Raymond Ernst from the Aerospace industries Association Space Council said that the AIA and its members “are delighted. This is exactly what NASA and the government needed to maintain leadership in aerospace.”

Ernst added that the AIA saw this policy as something that will “excite students, sustain our workforce, and strengthen our industrial base”. He added that this policy will “need a roadmap in order to implement the policy” and that this policy’s implementation needed to “maintain a balance between human and robotic missions”. While encouraging international participation, Ernst cautioned that the AIA felt that the U.S. needs to be certain that the international participants “bring adequate resources” to any collaboration.

Mark Bitterman from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Space Enterprise council said that President Bush “got it right” when he quoted President Jefferson regarding the Lewis and Clark expedition. He added “the economic benefits are a by product – not a goal”.

Bitterman noted that “popular support for NASA has waned. RLV (Reusable Launch Vehicle) efforts fell flat due to an inability to arrive and validate a set of requirements”. He suggested that a change in NASA’s “mindset and acquisition” are needed if the implementation of this policy is to succeed.

Bitterman was hopeful and said “This is the right time for a national space vision. Implementation will be done by industry and we heartily accept the challenge.”

The issue of coordinating space efforts, not only within NASA, but also in other agencies came up again and again. Mark Bitterman said that he thought that the old National Space Council (NSC) was very valuable that now that it has been disbanded it has been hard to develop policy on space matters. He recommended that the NSC be re-established to help maintain a focus on space policy across the Administration.

The Augustine Commission

Norman Augustine, chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program (1990) presented a summary of what his committee had recommended and how that might apply to what this current commission had on its plate.

Augustine noted that his committee had made its recommendations in a different word – one where the Soviet Union still spurred on competition and one where it was assumed that NASA’s budget would continue to grow at a healthy rate. Russia is now our partner, and NASA’s budget has suffered little or no growth since the report was issued.

At the time, Augustine said his committee diagnosed the nation’s problems vis a vis space as having to do with no broad national consensus as to what America’s goals in space were.

In addition they found that NASA was badly overcommitted with a mismatch between goals and budgets and that there was a lack of adequate program reserves for schedules slips and budget. The space station program was a prime focus of their concern in this regard.

In response the committee recommended a ‘pay as you go” approach to prevent this mismatch and that adequate reserves be put in place.

While recommending a balance between human and robotic exploration, Augustine said that his committee saw a clear difference between Hillary and Norgay reaching the summit of Everest and throwing some instrument package up there”.

The Space Shuttle was also an issue. Augustine’s committee saw it weaknesses – that it would never be a truly operational system – and that “we should not ask astronauts to sere as truck drivers.”

In reflecting on the NASA of today Augustine said that NASA still produced remarkable accomplishments but that “very few people would confuse NASA today with the NASA of the Apollo era.”

In terms of long term goals, Augustine said that his committee saw “a human trip to Mars as the correct long term goal using the Moon as a stepping stone along the way.”

In implementing this new policy Augustine’s personal observation was that it would be “a grave mistake to undertake a major new space objective on the cheap” noting that there is “a tendency among NASA and its contractors to think that they can operate under any budget.”

He ended by saying “one day humans will go to Mars. The only question is when – or who. My hope is that the first person to go is in the fourth grade somewhere today.”

The Synthesis Group

Former Astronaut Thomas Stafford, also the chair of a space policy effort in the same time frame as Augustine’s effort, then presented a summary of his team’s efforts. Stafford noted that President George H.W. Bush had made a public statement on July 20, 1989 that America should return to the moon and then go on to Mars by 2019.

Bush reactivated the NSC and established a 90 day study at NASA to look into how to implement his new vision. When NASA return that report to the NSC, the Council thought it to not be innovative or have any new ideas. The National Research Council to take a stab. They came to the same conclusion as the NSC had. Vice President Quayle then directed NASA to have an outreach effort in place to get ideas from inside and outside the agency as to how to accomplish the President’s wishes.

Stafford was asked to put a group together, the so-called “Synthesis Group” to synthesize a resulting summary of all of the inputs NASA had received. Along the way Stafford’s team coordinated with Augustine’s (and vice versa).

Stafford’s Synthesis group waded though several thousand ideas between June 1990 and June 1991. As part of their tasking, they were asked to come up with at least two architectures to implement the various items they had reviewed. Stafford said that they came back with four such architectures.

The four architecture options ranged from something very similar to what President George W. Bush presented, to plans that were much more elaborate and called for permanent bases on the moon and complex expeditions to Mars.

The one option that most resembles the current NASA plan assumed minimum resources and used a ‘spiral development’ approach similar to what was used to get to the Moon in the 1960’s.

Stafford’s group also expressed an interest in nuclear propulsion and had recommended that NASA restart its nuclear thermal rocket programs. Stafford said that he “commended Sean O’Keefe. Within the first few months he put forth an emphasis to develop nuclear propulsion.”

America had an advanced nuclear propulsion program in the 1960s. The NERVA program even produced a rocket engine which was test fired for significant periods of time. The program was then shut down.

As was the case with Augustine’s committee, Stafford’s group made recommendations that echo those being made today: long range strategic plans for exploration, a new central office for exploration, and establishing realistic program milestones. Moreover Stafford said that he thought it was important that any space vision “starts from the President on down” and that there is a “need for buy-in by Congress and the Executive Branch”.

Chairman Aldridge agreed with Stafford and added that such buy-in needs to be “bipartisan.” Neil Tyson went even further saying that “the American people need to take ownership – that it is a national right to be in space.”


One theme that popped up many times was the long term nature of this strategy and the need to find ways to sustain support over long periods of time. Augustine noted that when considering even a 20 year time frame that this included finding a way to coordinate things though “20 budgets, 10 Congresses and 5 Administrations”. He added “that is no insignificant accomplishment”.

Commission member Robert Walker added that the new policy embodied both a benefit and a problem given the long period of time being considered and the fact that “the budget process in Congress is broken – we rely on one year budgets.”


Another recurrent theme was education and maintaining a skilled workforce. Commission member Neil deGrasse Tyson observed that half a million jobs had been lost in the aerospace sector in the past decade and that it was “tough to tell students to come study aerospace.”

AIA’s Ernst replied that he feels that a focus that is lacking is one that generates enthusiasm among students and that “I think we can get back to the excitement of the 60s and the 70s.”

In terms of describing the current national vision for space, Cort Durocher from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics said “It is certainly more exciting than a NASA without a vision – which is what we’ve had for the past several administrations.”

Tyson added that training people for jobs in the hear future also has long term implications since “the next generation becomes senior managers 20 years from now.” Aldridge added that some of the people who will do these things have not been born yet,”

What Went Wrong Last Time?

Tyson then made an observation: “This commission is here because something failed with your commission.” He went on to ask what it was that Augustine’s commission hard recommended that was not implemented and “what is it that we can put in this report” so as to make sure tit does not happen again.

Augustine replied that today (unlike the situation after his report was issued) there is presidential leadership emanating from the to leadership – and that this is sustained leadership. He added that “NASA’s budget did not evolve the way we thought that it would” and that there was a pervasive feeling that people had “lost faith in NASA.”

Developing Policy

When asked if he thought that there should be a National Space Council once again Augustine said “I do. We recommended strengthening the National Space Council.” He went on to note that his commission saw the NSC’s value as being “policy oversight board of directors rather than another management level.”

Another theme that emerged was the need for any space policy – and its implementation – to be done in such a fashion as to allow the American people to understand the value of that policy to their daily lives.

Neil Tyson noted that the cost of the popular Mars rovers was some $800 million costs which he termed as being “under the radar”. If we want to put people on Mars that brings on a whole different debate.”

Getting the kids psyched

Motivating young people popped up every few minutes trhoughout the meeting. When asked how the Commission would address this Aldridge said “that the commission will make recommendations to NASA and the President. Neil Tyson said that he has had people suggest that space exploration needed to be added as an item in school curricula and that students attracted to space exploration may not end up getting a job doing so, but “they still go out and invent new things.”

Commission member Maria Zuber said “if you look at the control room at JPL you will see a lot of young faces that kind of look like America. At MIT enrollment spikes each time there is a space mission. We need to sustain that.”

Why are we doing this?

The issue of why we have a space program was core to all discussion about the success of this new policy in the short and long term. Commission member Paul Spudis said that there needs to be a clear statement why we have a space program and that any policy implementation should have near term milestones that allows Congress to see how things are going”.

Neil Tyson said that “the public will have to be convinced of the truth of how the space program affects our lives and the economic benefits it provides.”

Some people are not happy with the new policy. Neil Tyson mused “many space enthusiasts are grumbling.” He found it somewhat ironic that they do so given that “President Kennedy gave us much less detail i.e. ‘go to the moon’. President Bush has given us much more detail.”

Hubble as a lesson

The issue of the cancellation of the Space Shuttle mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope came up. Aldridge made it very clear that this decision was made by NASA due to safety concerns and that it had nothing to do with the President’s space policy – but rather, was due to NASA’s intention to follow the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s recommendations.

Neil Tyson addressed both sides of the issue. While noting that the Hubble is a marvelous accomplishment, there are things coming which seek to fill in areas that have not been addressed by Hubble – or cannot be addressed by Hubble. He cited the Spitzer Infrared Telescope and suggested that it would soon be producing images of the same beauty and scientific significance as Hubble and that the importance of this and future “great observatories” must be made clear to people.

Curiously, the Hubble decision and the Commission’s discussion are strongly related. Again and again one member after another noted the importance of making the space program’s value relevant to taxpayers and that things that become important to people in space such as the Hubble space telescope needed to be embraced and repeated

Yet at the very same time, when pressed, the panel said that the decision to not service the Hubble was outside the scope of their Commission’s charter.

Like it or not the new space policy and the Hubble decision are linked in many people’s minds – especially since the President has recommended that the Space Shuttle be retired by 2010.

Clearly, if this commission seeks to provide guidance on the implementation of a new future policy it needs to be paying attention to how Americans react to space policy as it is being made and implemented right here and now.

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