The ’60s are over, and no amount of artists’ renderings is going to bring back the Apollo days if NASA’s budget doesn’t get a big boost.
That’s the key message from the independent panel chartered to rethink NASA’s future. The Review of Human Space Flight Plans group is also looking at a variety of imaginative approaches to space exploration that could make NASA’s future seem less like reheated Apollo leftovers.
Known informally as the Augustine committee after its head, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, the panel of scientists, astronauts and engineers is nearly ready to present its findings to the Obama administration. It announced today that after a packed schedule in cities around the nation earlier this month, it won’t hold any more public meetings.
The Augustine committee’s preliminary judgments, which have been trickling out over the last several months, bring a measure of reality to NASA’s agenda, which suffered from a gap between the Bush administration’s big talk and limited funding. The truth, the panel has found, is that NASA doesn’t have enough money coming in to satisfy its stated goals of returning humans to the moon and eventually to Mars.
And maybe, some scientists argue, that’s exactly how it should be.
“They don’t do anything for us anyhow. Anything we can do, we can do it better, cheaper, and faster with robots,” said Bob Parks, a University of Maryland physicist, former executive director of the American Institute of Physics. “And I mean cheaper by a factor of 10 to 100. Human beings are just not very good spacecraft.”
Backers of human spaceflight, though, tend to argue that putting a few humans up there inspires the rest of us down here. And for them, the Augustine findings are disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. NASA’s current budget, as Norm Augustine has pointedly said in various interviews, doesn’t support an ambitious program, whether its goals are to go to the moon, Mars, or just some points in between.
While the Obama administration might have to make the tough choice to end major human space endeavors beyond low-Earth orbit, space hasn’t really been a major federal priority for more than 30 years, as military and health have eaten up a combined 80 percent of R&D money. And the Obama administration hasn’t telegraphed a major change in that stance.
“I think these investments in research and development are strongly indicative of concerns at that point in time,” said Jim Dooley, a policy analyst at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who studies R&D spending and created the graph above for his paper “U.S. Federal Investments in Energy R&D” (.pdf).
The Sputnik scare of the late ’50s and the battle for technological supremacy with the Soviet Union made space a concern and a priority. That sparked the ambitions and funding levels that put humans on the moon, but as other issues became ascendant, the money dried up despite the moon landings’ popularity. It’s worth remembering that not even all the original Apollo missions were actually flown. The funding for space hasn’t reached anywhere near those levels since.
“For all of its wonderful success, Apollo didn’t succeed in becoming sustainable,” said David Mindell, a science and technology historian at MIT who led a team that last year offered NASA some suggestions for the future. “You need a program that Republicans and Democrats will support. It should be robust to the usual four-year cycle of politics.”
So, that’s the situation the Augustine commission inherited. They looked at more than 3,000 possible plans for the human presence in space. Everything was up for re-examination from the planned grounding of the space shuttle, to the de-orbiting of the International Space Station, to rockets used for exploring beyond low-earth orbit.
Now, they’ve narrowed the options to just a handful. All of the options that will be formally submitted to the president will substantially revise the current Constellation program. That’s not much of a surprise, because nearly all parts of that program had come under heavy criticism, including its very existence.
The plans are still rocket-science–complicated with all kinds of contingencies for different budget levels and types of vehicles, but by looking at the scoring rubric the commission is using (.ppt) to compare the ideas to NASA’s goals, we can tell some things already.
First, NASA workers and contractors could be in trouble. Not a single one of the plans got a positive score in the “NASA and Industry Workforce” category. Second, almost all of the Augustine options received neutral or positive ratings for advancing scientific knowledge. Third, an intriguing new set of ideas has captured the committee’s imagination. The “Deep Space” mission plans would forgo landings on the Moon and Mars to focus on visiting nearby asteroids.
There are a host of technical details and variations on each plan, but the key questions (.ppt) are: When will the shuttle be phased out? When will the International Space Station be de-orbited? Which rocket — Ares I, Ares V, modified Ares V, shuttle-styled, or commercial launch vehicle — will be used to go beyond low-Earth orbit?
For the next week or so, we won’t know the specifics, but Mindell said he hopes NASA’s plans for human spaceflight will have defined rationales that create a coherent program.
“I feel,” Mindell said, “like the Augustine panel should be able to go back to the president and science adviser and say, ‘If you want a mission that is 75 percent national pride and 25 percent science, here’s what it will take and how much it will cost.’”
Image: A rendering by Digitalspace shows a possible manned NASA mission to an asteroid.
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