FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Looking Ahead: Senate Hearing on Moving Beyond Low Earth Orbit

Richard M. Jones
Number 131 - October 19, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

Adjust text size enlarge text shrink text    |    Print this pagePrint this page    |     Bookmark and Share     |    rss feed for FYI

“I cannot escape the conclusion that the agency is being asked to do too much with too little” said Steven Squyres at a September 12 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  Squyres is the Chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, and was joined at the witness table by National Research Council Space Studies Board Chair Charles Kennel and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne President Jim Maser to discuss the space agency’s future programs. 

It has been two years since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 was signed into law.  It authorized (but did not fund) NASA’s programs for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013.  This hearing, held by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was called to set the groundwork for the next reauthorization bill.   Hutchison, much praised by Nelson for her work on previous NASA bills, retires at the end of this Congress.

This hearing highlighted differences in how NASA’s future programs are viewed.  Maser was critical of the Obama Administration:

“I think it’s important as a foundation for this discussion to touch on the issue of NASA’s strategic direction. For some time now and especially since the end of the Space Shuttle program, NASA has seemingly suffered from a lack of an overarching, enduring vision for leadership in space science, technology exploration. The Administration cancelled Constellation and the moon mission and established new priorities and directions such as landing on an asteroid and funding a commercial space capability.”

He continued:

“Without clear direction from the Administration, NASA has been left to juggle a multitude of tasks. NASA is very busy trying to reestablish U.S. access to the International Space Station and maximize its scientific returns and develop a Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) launch system with no clear set of missions. NASA is working all of those efforts in conjunction with trying to develop human and robotic roadmaps with its international partners, fund a commercial space enterprise to sustain multiple competitors without clearly identifying a supporting market or demand, and accomplish meaningful results in a timely manner. Finally, they are attempting to do the many other things that keep ten NASA Centers healthy. NASA is being asked to do all of this with a flat, essentially declining budget.”

Kennel expressed a different view:

“Some people have said that NASA relinquished leadership of the human spaceflight enterprise when it retired the space shuttle. In my personal opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. The International Space Station, if nothing else, guarantees U.S. leadership for the rest of the decade, and there are at least three things NASA can do now to ensure leadership after that. The first is to realize the full promise of ISS utilization, building on the foundations of its status as a National Laboratory and by rebuilding the Nation’s research program in life and microgravity science, as outlined in the decadal survey report mentioned earlier. Next is to encourage America’s new entrepreneurial launch industry, not only to support human spaceflight and to bring down the cost to launch scientific spacecraft, but also to give a boost to an entirely new space economy. Finally, by the end of this decade, NASA has to make a firm start on a long-term program of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

Squyres commented on the degree to which NASA has implemented the reauthorization act:

“In a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, President Obama outlined his Administration’s goals for human exploration of space. He called for sending humans to an asteroid by 2025, to Mars orbit by the mid 2030s, and to the surface of Mars subsequently. These are grand goals, and they are broadly consistent with the goals expressed by the 2010 Authorization Act.

“Asteroids are important targets for exploration. Scientifically, asteroids contain clues regarding the formation and earliest evolution of the solar system. Practically, they present both an opportunity and a threat. Mining of asteroids could yield raw materials of enormous value for use in space, simply because they need not be lifted from the Earth’s gravity well. And we know that asteroids have impacted the Earth in the past with devastating effects, and will do so again in the future unless we develop an understanding of these bodies sufficient to prevent such an event.

“As for Mars, I feel that sending humans to that planet to with the objective of learning whether life ever took hold there is a goal worthy of a great national space agency. I agree with the 2010 Authorization Act that ‘A long term objective for human exploration of space should be the eventual international exploration of Mars.’ In fact, in my view, it should be the long term objective for human exploration of space, whether carried out internationally or by NASA alone.

“So I disagree with critics who contend that NASA does not have clear goals for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. In fact, the goals are quite clear, and they have been articulated without ambiguity. Moreover, two of the key elements for achieving those goals – SLS and Orion – are in development and proceeding well.”

The witnesses outlined a multitude of important programs for NASA to pursue.    There is a wide variety of missions that would offer outstanding scientific opportunities.  Important to achieving many of these missions is the development of a heavy lift capability – the Space Launch System - to enable incremental robotic and manned missions to the moon, and for further exploration of Mars and its moons.

The degree to which NASA can accomplish these missions, is, not surprisingly, future funding of the agency.  Kennel spoke of the importance of completing the James Webb Space Telescope, comparing it to the Superconducting Supercollider:

“American leadership in space astronomy and astrophysics is solid, but not unchallenged. The Hubble Space Telescope, the Nobel-winning Cosmic Background Explorer, and 20 years of systematically planned missions to study the sky in every accessible wavelength range, from microwaves to gamma rays, have kept research in these fields on the forefront. This leadership is ours to lose. First and foremost, we must stay the course and complete the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). I think neither the scientific community nor Congress knew how challenging (and expensive) this mission would become, but stopping now would have serious consequences for the whole field. Many of us recall that the U.S. lost leadership in particle physics to Europe when the Superconducting Supercollider was cancelled. We cannot let the same thing happen to JWST, which will do in the 21st century what Hubble did in the 20th.”

Squyres offered a similar caution when discussing the envisioned Mars sample return program in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA).  This mission was the highest priority of a National Research Council (NRC) planetary science decadal review:

“Unfortunately, NASA has been unable to follow this recommendation from the NRC.  The reason for this is simple: deep proposed cuts to NASA’s F.Y. 2013 budget for Mars exploration prevent it. And in the face of these cuts, the hoped-for partnership with ESA has not come to fruition.

“If no commitment to a Mars sample return mission is made in response to the decadal survey recommendations, the result will be highly detrimental to the future of U.S. planetary science. More pragmatically, I fear that an inability to enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with a willing, eager, and highly capable agency like ESA could jeopardize future international partnerships as well. And most importantly, the scientific investigation of Mars that should provide the underpinning for future human exploration will be lost.”

Maser spoke of the importance of funding:

“An enduring, stable vision for NASA should be set by the President and supported in Congress in a consistent manner that enables execution over timeframes that extend beyond a single Administration or Congressional election cycle. Budgets should be provided that are consistent with executing the direction and are stable over the timeframes required to execute the direction. It is NASA’s job to define the manner in which to achieve the vision and then execute on the vision within the budget.  An enduring vision for NASA should be more focused to better align with the current constrained budget environment, and the vision should be mission-driven. A focused, mission-driven vision that endures will allow NASA to maximize the returns to the American people for the resources provided. Finally, the vision should push to accomplish feats never before achieved by mankind.”

The two senators asked many searching questions about the future direction of NASA’s programs.  There was discussion about robotic and manned missions to the moon, asteroids and Mars; future research on the International Space Station; the significant benefit of international partnerships; and the desirability of competition.  Questions were also asked about whether the agency’s aeronautics program should be moved out of NASA, with Squyres commenting that the program was one of NASA’s “shining jewels” that offered some of the most direct benefits to taxpayers.

Toward the end of the hearing, referencing the funding environment, Nelson said “we are living in uncertain times.”  NASA “has fared quite well” compared to other departments and agencies, Nelson said, and he was optimistic about sequestration, which the Office of Management and Budget has calculated could result in a reduction of $1,458 million to the agency’s current budget in early January. “I think we will work ourselves through that,” he said. 

Looking ahead to the important role Congress will play in determining NASA’s future, Kennel told the senators:

“Never before has congressional leadership been more critical to America’s leadership in space than now. Now is the time for you to shape enduring goals that can guide America’s space program to its next stage of leadership in the complex times you see ahead. The space science and technology community can deal with budgetary turbulence, but only when there is a stable sense of direction.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics