Sean O’Keefe Testifes On NASA’s Budget Before the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee – Part 2

By Keith Cowing
May 10, 2002
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Continued from Part 1

Sen. Nelson began his questions by noting that he had visited JSC last Fall and that he had dinner with his former crewmate Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. “I asked him about his plasma rocket that he has been developing and asked for a tour. He took me to the building adjacent to Ellington Field to see it. His VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) rocket had already been recognized in the November 200 issue of Scientific American. I was pleased to see NASA’s FY 2003 budget contain $1 billion for it Nuclear Systems Initiative. You used a mission to Pluto [as an example] and how much [nuclear technology] would speed it up.”

Nelson then moved on to the topic of Mars ” Plasma rockets would get there [Mars] in 39 days. It would accelerate half way and then decelerate the other half. Therefore there would be no zero G problems – as opposed to a mission that could take 10 months. I asked Diaz how long it would be before he could build the engine. Diaz said ‘this is it’. From this test model we could actually develop a capability to use this plasma rocket to keep reboosting the ISS so hat can save a Shuttle mission. I have not spoken to him directly about this, but my staff tells me that this little program keeps hanging on by its fingernails. If you are requesting $1 billion for nuclear systems, does it include VASIMR?”

O’Keefe replied that he was not sure if it is included. Nelson replied that Chang-Diaz has been working on this since the mid-1980s. Is there anyone your staff who can give you an update?”

Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Readdy sat down next to O’Keefe and replied “Franklin is preparing for a flight. His lab is a concept demonstration. He has a number of students that are being supported. [This engine effort] is still in its infancy and is a technology demonstration that come under the SLI banner – orbit to orbit propulsion. We are looking to partner with DoD on some of these issues. That engine requires a substantial electrical power source and is only enabled by some sort of nuclear reactor.”

Nelson asked : Is it funded in the FY 2003 budget?” Readdy replied that he’d have to get back to Nelson (after checking). Nelson replied” if this isn’t funded I need to know this soon. I want to see that this funding continues.”

Nelson then moved to the topic of Shuttle safety upgrades. Noting that Bill Readdy testified at these hearings, he said that all of the witnesses at that hearing “were unanimous that we need to implement safety upgrades. Funding for the Shuttle is flat.”

O’Keefe replied “there is no higher requirement than safety. The last Shuttle launch happened with only 11 seconds left in the launch window. I was certain that the flight director would have deferred the launch if anything affected safety. The only other comparative community that is equally zealous is the nuclear Navy. We will announce in the days ahead the recruitment of a new chief engineer with a Naval reactor background.

O’Keefe went on to say “I am impressed with the ASAP (Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel) when I have met with them. We share the same concerns. We are looking at what it will take to extend the Shuttle beyond 2012 perhaps to 2020. I am looking for a more focused set of recommendations [from the ASAP] as to what these upgrades should be.

Sen. Nelson added ” I cannot overstate the commitment of the current [Associate Administrator for Space Flight Fred Gregory]. He chaired a Flight Readiness Review (FRR) as soon as he became the AA. The naming of [former astronaut] Bryan O’Connor to be [Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance] is further evidence of a commitment [to safety].”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) opened her questions by saying “I want to say that we cannot have a visionary, exploratory NASA if we do not fully fund it. Your priority is to determine where money is best spent. Last year we made a mistake by not funding Shuttle safety upgrades. This year the Administration requested $250 million less for the Space Station. NASA needs to get its house in order but as I have said earlier (at your confirmation hearings) I am very troubled by the limit of a 3 person crew for the ISS with 80% of the astronaut man-hours to required to operate the ISS leaving 20% to do research. I am worried that we mighty have a permanent situation where only have 20% [available] for innovative research.”

She continued “the X-38 termination in favor of the development of a new vehicle triggers the thought that we are going to jeopardize safety. I don’t think anyone wants that. We originally would have had a 7 person crew at end of 2006. That is now 2008. The CRV (Crew Return Vehicle) was supposed to be operational in 2008. I hope that the 7 person capability is not put off because of the CRV . We are now looking at 2012 for new CRV. This is too long to wait for important research.”

O’Keefe replied that the REMAP activity will be completed in June. Hutchinson said ” If REMAP finds that there would be better research with a 7 person crew would it be your goal to go to 7 any sooner than 2012?” O’Keefe replied “we have asked REMAP to be clear about what they think are priorities to be best pursued in this unique microgravity condition.” Hutchinson replied “If we have the priorities set will you revisit the 3 Vs 7 person crew and make it a full priority? O’Keefe replied ” I don’t mean to be evasive: in order to get to the Node 2 configuration in early February 2004 there are 10 Shuttle flights that have to be accomplished to build out to Core Complete. Yes we will re-examine the size based on these factors.”

Hutchinson then said ” you said that we have to do these flights before 2004. He study comes out in June. Will you prioritize now or wait until 2004?” O’Keefe replied ” as soon after that report [is finished] I hope to muster everyone at the agency to focus on that task. I specifically recruited Shannon Lucid [for this]. She and Mary Kicza at Code U will be tasked to take the report from REMAP and make judgements on how to reorganize payloads. That will take time and work and we will start right away as [soon as] the report comes out.”

The topic then switched to the X-38. Hutchinson noted that a new vehicle was being considered that would do both cargo and crew transport. “NASA officials say that SLI will do this. Do you plan to have the human space component performed at JSC?” O’Keefe replied “your characterization on the X-38 is right. A single mission, single purpose vehicle that will costs us 1-2 billion to be tethered to the ISS is a design we know how to do. [The question is] if we want to make that commitment now or develop a more versatile path. I think we can do it along the same timeframe. Trying to leverage known technology with other aspect of the Federal government.”

O’Keefe continued “when we make the downselection of candidates for SLI the opportunity [to know] where that work will be done will be a lot clearer. Now, it is speculative: who will win or what design is best. The human spaceflight dimension is paramount to meet emergency requirements. That expertise is deepest at J SC. We cannot move ahead without them. We need to cooperate across the agency.”

Hutchinson replied “I would be concerned if I though there would be any devaluation of JSC. I hope you will not try to move the human aspect from JSC where we have always had the human component headquartered.” O’Keefe began to reply “I appreciate your point and what you prefer” Hutchinson cut him off and said “I am glad to hear that you understand – but is there anything in your mind – plans or thoughts – that could devalue the human [factors] strength at JSC?”

O’Keefe replied ” it would be speculative to comment. I do not want to deceive you to say that everything will stay the way it is today. There is going to be change. I am not holding anything back. I am not attempting to be evasive. I do not want to say that there will be an exact maintenance of the status quo as far as the eye can see. The human aspect is central to what we do. JSC has always been a center of core competence in this regard.”

Sen. Wyden shifted the focus to what he called the “exciting issues. A manned mission to Mars. When will we see this?” O’Keefe replied “I think there are two limitations to picking any date or timeframe to accomplish human spaceflight to Mars or any other destination.”

“First” O’Keefe said ” the means to get there. We have a power generation and propulsion capacity that is limited to solar electric. We are looking at the range that may speed and enhance that capability. The Nuclear power and propulsion initiatives are clearly the first major step in that direction. The second issue is the radiation effect [on humans] and what it takes to live in space for long durations. We have learned from probes (MARIE on Mars Odyssey) that the [radiation levels during a trip to Mars] on humans may be factor of three higher than they are in low Earth orbit. We do not know how to sort through that. [There needs to be a] way to shield astronauts.” Noting the relationship between intensity and duration of radiation exposure and its harmful effects on living systems O’Keefe noted that cutting transit time could help resolve this problem by cutting exposure time “Once you conquer that then let’s pick a date. There is mounting evidence that there is a reason to go there.”

Wyden then asked O’Keefe if there will be any changes in near term unmanned exploration of Mars. “Give me a sense on how you see unmanned missions laying the groundwork for future human exploration [of Mars].”

O’Keefe replied ” Robots first to gather information to determine what the effects [of Mars will be] on human exploration. We are pursuing a series of robotic exploration missions. Two in 2003 that will gather information. They will blaze the path to ascertain what the conditions would be for a follow on human endeavor. That is the great advantage of the ISS – to learn a lot about extended duration [human] spaceflight.”

Wyden then raised the issue of education. “We will examine this further at future hearings. You are very much on target [where] where you want to take the agency. The Benefits that will ripple trough society – how do you get there from here. You have an agency with financial problems. I have been pontificating here about problems that GAO found. This is an ambitious undertaking. I personally believe that this country cannot afford not to do this. How do you see this being put into place? I have a bias: when I was a young member of the House I wrote the Talented Teacher Act which became the Christa McAuliffe scholarship.”

O’Keefe replied: The efforts of the Christa McAuliife foundation offer hope and inspiration.” He the went on to discuss the Educator Mission Specialist Program. “Barbara Morgan will be the first. This is different than where we were 16 years ago. She won’t be the last. This is an opportunity for a trained educator to go though the astronaut candidate program and to perform the range of mission requirements for any astronaut – but to view them though the prism of the eye of an educator. She will be our path blazer.” O’Keefe sees the major challenge as being “how to translate this so as to excite that generation – my son Kevin in that age bracket.”

The next thing to do . according to O’Keefe ” is too look at things we do at NASA. We need to look at wide range of programs. Every one has phenomenal educational initiatives underway to make what we do available to classrooms. We are trying pull all of that together and do it in a coherent way. I would be excited to discuss this in a separate discussion. We need to do it and it doesn’t take any more money.”

Wyden asked O’Keefe if he has an inventory of the educational programs. O’Keefe replied that this has “not been done carefully yet.” O’Keefe went on to say that he wanted to coordinate these educational programs with the Department of Education – specifically with their new “no child left behind” initiative. Wyden asked if this can be done with existing authority or if new laws might be required. O’Keefe replied that he sees the need “to use existing authority in a more targeted way. I know of nothing right now that stands in our way.” Wyden replied, in closing, that ” this could be flagship initiative in the O’Keefe Watch at NASA.”

Sen. Nelson brought up SLI again. “I have double checked: we will have the right language ready for the markup of the Armed Services Authorization Bill. If it makes it through the process we will have another way to get these heads (NASA and DoD) together.”

Nelson then moved to the issue of the ISS and science. “You gave a speech in Syracuse and said that NASA will be science-driven. ” He then asked O’Keefe to elaborate this taking note of the fact of how the ISS was configured ” basically for its care and feeding.”

O’Keefe replied “Shannon Lucid is looking at this question. As it pertains to ISS and what it should be, the first milestone (Core Complete) must be achieved before we can talk about others. Nelson said : the thrust of my question is – would slowing down on Assembly Complete going to raise more costs in the future? O’Keefe replied “we are not slowing down the system integration challenge at all. Nelson replied ” Haven’t all of the projects beyond core complete been put on hold?’ O’Keefe replied This is a chicken and egg issue: anything that we need to get to core complete is going on now.”

Nelson then brought up The Space Shuttle program. “The Shuttle budget is flat. You announced that you will have 4 launches – this is a reduction. That is going to impact the constituency of Texas and Florida because of anticipated layoffs. What can you tell us?”

O’Keefe replied “4 flights are dedicated to the ISS. The budget also suggests that any other flights – those done for science, the Hubble repair mission, etc. will be reflected in the full cost accounting of those specific programs [that sponsor the missions]. The last ‘centrally’ funded mission is STS-107. Beyond that they will be reflected in the science objectives of those [sponsoring] programs.”

Nelson replied “naturally there is some concern that there will be layoffs. This incredible talent – with this lengthy memory and history – and start laying off some of that -and then you realize [later] that you have to ramp back up. You should be very concerned about that.” O’Keefe replied : the most extraordinary commodity we have are the amazing folks that are involved in it. We have a very mature workforce. There are three times as many people over 60 than there are under 30. We need to fix that situation.

Wyden then closed the hearings by saying ” My sense is that we need to get the accounting done – and think big. I think you are up to it. This is a very big undertaking. The bean counting and the science – either one separately would be a very big undertaking – but the two are intertwined.”

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