Norman Augustine Responds to President Obama’s Speech on New Space Exploration Policy

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Publication date: 
20 April 2010

“This is a pivotal time.” - Norman Augustine

Following President Obama’s address last Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center describing the Administration’s new space exploration policy, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, OSTP Director John Holdren, and Norman Augustine spoke to a gathering of government, private, and academic leaders.

Holdren explained that the report, “Seeking a Human Space Flight Program Worthy of a Great Nation”issued by the “Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee” that Augustine chaired played an important role in the development of the Administration’s new space exploration policy.  Holdren said this policy offered a number of important advantages, such as faster access to space, less cost to the taxpayer, and a wider range of space destinations.  He predicted the policy will gain support as more people come to fully understand it.

Augustine briefly described how the ten member commission examined NASA’s current space exploration programs, budgets and objectives.  Having ninety days in which to write a report, the committee was tasked with offering options but not specific recommendations.

Explaining that a nation’s space policy depends heavily on how much it can afford, Augustine reviewed some of the factors considered by the committee.  Among them was the years-ago decision made by the Bush Administration to retire the space shuttle.  The committee concluded that keeping the shuttle in active service would consume funding that is needed for the exploration program, increasing the time that American astronauts would be confined to a low earth orbit.  Flying the shuttle for a longer period of time would reduce turbulence in the workforce.

The Administration’s new policy recommends the International Space Station be kept in service for an additional five years beyond its original retirement date of 2010.  Augustine said this would be “a very good investment” that would avoid damaging U.S. relationships with the station’s international partners.

Regarding Constellation, Augustine described how appropriations for the program had been about one-third less than what was originally planned, resulting in a significant disparity between the program’s objectives and its funding.   The original program is, he said, “not executable.”  The Constellation’s Ares I has had a schedule slippage of between three and five years and would result in the rocket being put in service too late to ferry crews to the shuttle, and too early for use in exploration.  It is important for the United States to develop a heavy lift launch vehicle such as the Ares V for deep space exploration.   Work on this rocket has barely started because funding has been shifted away from it to other programs.   Augustine concurred with the President’s decision to develop the Orion space capsule as a space station rescue vehicle.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Administration’s new space policy involves the eventual use of commercial contractors for the transportation of astronauts to the space station following the shuttle’s retirement.  Augustine contends commercial interests would be able to provide this service at less expense than the shuttle would.  In addition, federal contracting for this service would encourage the development of commercial space providers in much the same way that the government’s use of commercial airlines did for the delivery of air mail.  “I believe our industry is up to the job,” Augustine said, asking if critics have more faith in Russia’s Soyuz to transport American astronauts to the space station than U.S. companies.

Augustine predicted that after spending tens of billions of dollars the U.S. would land humans on the moon in 2020, which he said, many would see as their “grandfather’s” space program. Augustine said it would take decades for America to land humans on Mars.  In the intervening years, much could be learned from sending Americans to other destinations such as asteroids, Lagrange Points, and an orbital mission to Mars.

In concluding his remarks, Augustine explained that the Administration’s new space policy is “very close” to Variant 5B in the commission’s report, and which would be “worthy of our nation.”  It would, Augustine said, transform our space program from one of transportation to exploration.  An excerpt from page 91 of this report  describing this option follows.  As an aid to the reader, paragraph breaks have been inserted between major points:


6.5.1 Evaluation of Integrated Option 5

In the final family of options are those that pursue exploration using the Flexible Path strategy . . .

. . .  these are not constrained to the FY 2010 budget profile. Rather, they are fit to the ‘less-constrained’ planning budget that the Committee developed.    . . . the budget profile increases to $3 billion above the FY 2010 guidance between FY 2011 and FY 2014, and then grows at a rate comparable to an expected inflation rate of 2.4 percent per year.

Option 5. Flexible Path.

This option follows the Flexible Path as an exploration strategy. It operates the Shuttle into     FY 2011, extends the ISS [International Space Station] until 2020, and funds technology development.

In all three variants . . . the commercial transport service becomes available in the mid-to-late 2010s to begin ferrying U.S. crew to the ISS.

By the early 2020s, after the heavy-lift vehicle is developed, development of a small in-space habitat and an in-space restartable propulsion stage follows.

All three variants also include a hybrid lunar lander that is smaller than the Altair. . . . The ascent stage is developed by NASA, but the descent stage is assumed to be commercially developed, building on the growing industrial capability pursuing NASA’s Lunar Lander Challenge and the Google Lunar X-Prize. The commercial lander could also use the NASA-developed, in-space restartable engine that would be used for missions on the Flexible Path. There are three variants within this option; they differ only in the heavy-lift vehicle.

Variant 5A is the Ares V Lite variant. It develops the Ares V Lite, the most capable of the heavy-lift vehicles in this family of options. . . .  The Ares V Lite becomes available in the early 2020s, and the Flexible Path missions - to the Moon, Earth escape to Lagrange points or near-Earth objects, and a Mars fly-by - occur at about one-year intervals.

Initial lunar landing takes place in the mid-to-late 2020s. Lunar buildup occurs at a rate of about two flights per year with the more capable Ares V Lite. On-orbit refueling, or the use of a second Ares V Lite, is necessary for the most energetic of the Flexible Path missions.

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