FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

First Meeting of Augustine Space Flight Committee

Richard M. Jones
Number 80 - June 24, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The first public meeting was held last week by Norman Augustine and his colleagues on the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee. While there were few indications what direction the committee may take in its recommendations, there was general recognition that this review comes at a critical time for NASA and the future of manned space flight.

Augustine is joined by nine committee members drawn from private industry, academia, the Air Force and the astronaut corps. Augustine has considerable experience in this role, most recently as the chairman of the committee for the National Academies’ report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.”

The panel is to issue its report by August to inform both Congress and the Administration. The FY 2010 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill which funds NASA deliberately flat funded the human space flight budget pending the report’s recommendations. The Administration, according to OSTP Director John Holdren who spoke at the meeting, views the committee’s recommendations as very important “as we figure out how to move forward.”

The scope and objectives of the committee’s charter are as follows:

“The Committee shall conduct an independent review of ongoing U.S. human space flight plans and programs, as well as alternatives, to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight – one that is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable. The Committee should aim to identify and characterize a range of options that spans the reasonable possibilities for continuation of U.S. human space flight activities beyond retirement of the Space Shuttle. The identification and characterization of these options should address the following objectives: a) expediting a new U.S. capability to support utilization of the International Space Station (ISS); b) supporting missions to the Moon and other destinations beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO); c) stimulating commercial space flight capability; and d) fitting within the current budget profile for NASA exploration activities.

“In addition to the objectives described above, the review should examine the appropriate amount of research and development and complementary robotic activities needed to make human space flight activities most productive and affordable over the long term, as well as appropriate opportunities for international collaboration. It should also evaluate what capabilities would be enabled by each of the potential architectures considered. It should evaluate options for extending ISS operations beyond 2016.”

The committee has an aggressive schedule of public meetings and site visits planned between now and its final public meeting in Washington on August 5, with trips planned to Virginia, Alabama, Louisiana, California, Utah, Nevada, Texas and Florida.

Augustine opened the all-day meeting by encouraging people to use the committee’s website to offer comments and remain informed about its deliberations. Four task groups will be formed to study different aspects of the committee’s charter, with assistance provided by the Aerospace Corporation. With this brief introduction, Augustine introduced OSTP Director Holden who Augustine said was the driving force behind the establishment of the review committee. In addition to Holdren, the committee heard presentations from NASA and international partner space officials, corporate officials, senators and representatives, and the public. The remainder of this FYI centers on the remarks by Holdren, two representatives, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL.)

Holdren spoke of President Obama’s belief in the importance of science and technology in meeting the nation’s challenges, saying space is an important component in the development of innovations. Holdren spoke of the unique perspective that space provides, and its inspiration for youth. He said space flight is an important aspect of this, and that it will always be important to have humans in space. “This is a president who gets it,” Holdren said (as he often does in describing the Administration’s position on science and technology), adding that the president “understands the importance of space.”

Holdren also discussed the importance of the committee to NASA and its programs, urging the members to assess all options, determine if a way can be found to minimize the five-year gap between the shuttle’s retirement and its replacement, offer recommendations on how to utilize the space station after 2016, and consider how to best balance NASA’s programs. He acknowledged that accomplishing all of this will be a “daunting challenge,” made even more difficult by the August deadline. The committee could recommend, Holdren said, that NASA remain on its present course or vary it, advising the committee to tell the Administration what it needs to know “as we figure out how to move forward.”

Following a series of presentations by various NASA officials, including the Acting Administrator, and video presentations by international partners who expressed some frustrations, the committee heard from Members of Congress. The first was Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) who told the committee that their deliberations were being closely watched, predicting that their recommendations would be given tremendous weight by Congress. Olson said that NASA is not limited by its vision, but rather by a lack of commitment of the nation to the agency’s needs.

House Science and Technology Committee Ranking Member Ralph Hall’s (R-TX) written statement was read by a staff member. Hall remarked that NASA’s programs had been reauthorized by both Republican-led and Democratic-led Congresses, with each law calling for the completion of the space station, a strong research program, the retirement of the space shuttle, and the development of follow-on flight systems. The agency is being asked to do too much with too few resources, Hall wrote. Hall is concerned that not all of the space shuttle’s manifest will be flown, resulting in the AMS being left on the ground. A letter, read aloud, from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) reiterated many of these same points.

Senator Nelson gave an impassioned presentation. He spoke of the “extremely significant position” the committee is in, saying that it will have an extraordinary influence on the White House and Congress as they determine “where the space program is going.” Nelson was very skeptical of the Administration’s projected flat budgets for NASA in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. He spoke of the great difficulty the agency would have operating under these projections, calling them a political and economic document and telling the committee that there is “nothing magic about these numbers.” He spoke of a six to eight year gap in the shuttle’s replacement, and cautioned that no one knows what the geopolitical situation will be with Russia in coming years. Nelson does not want to shut down the space station in 2015, warned against the loss of a dedicated NASA workforce, said the agency’s science programs should not have to compete with its exploration program, and praised the nomination of Charles Bolden to be the next NASA administrator. Concluding his remarks, Nelson said the “president’s projections are unrealistic,” and told the committee that what they decide “will be key.”

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095