Yesterday the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Committee, released its report on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Although I’ve read some criticism of their report online, I think the criticism is all of the “Shoot the messenger” variety. The committee did its job really well.
The report sets out some basic and unpleasant truths that people have been averting their eyes from for a long time. It also laid out five reasonable scenarios for how NASA can move ahead. Even though this was not a decision-making committee, it did actually rule out a scenario that was unrealistic, which I thought was quite an accomplishment. The committee has provided in clear language the basis for the true decision-makers to make a decision. Now we’ll see if our leaders can step up to the plate — or, to use a more appropriate sports analogy since we have an ex-basketball player in the White House, we’ll see if they can sink the winning 3-pointer with the clock running out.
Here are four options that the committee has said are feasible, plus the one that it said was not feasible at this time. (The report actually split option 3 into two sub-options.) Some of the names are theirs, and some are mine.
1) Moon Never, aka Napoleon’s Retreat. In this scenario, NASA continues with both its current budget and current objectives, which are incompatible. The shuttle is mothballed in 2011. The International Space Station is ditched into the Pacific Ocean in 2016. We continue spending money for a moon program that will never happen: “There are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever,” the report says. This option is basically a full-fledged retreat from manned space exploration, with a fig leaf of ongoing research to cover our embarrassment.
Don’t laugh. This is probably the most likely option. Napoleon didn’t want to retreat from Russia, but he did.
2) Moon Never, ISS on Life Support. Slightly more palatable, this option also abandons hope for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit, but it at least acknowledges that it would be a disgrace to build a space station for 25 years, operate it for 5 years, and then torpedo it. The Augustine committee said that we can keep the ISS going to 2020 by developing a smaller heavy-launch rocket and relying on commercial companies to generate cheaper alternatives for launching humans into orbit. A slightly larger fig leaf.
3) Moon First. The committee says that we can keep on track for returning to the moon in the mid-2020s (not 2020 any more) if NASA’s budget is increased by $3 billion per year, plus reasonable cost of living increases thereafter. “At this budget level, both the Moon First strategy and the Flexible Path strategies begin human exploration on a reasonable, though hardly aggressive, timetable. The Committee believes an exploration program that will be a source of pride for the nation requires resources at such a level,” the report says. Again there are various options based on how big a launch vehicle we want and how much help we can expect from commercial space services.
4) Flexible Path. This option includes lunar fly-bys, visits to Lagrange points (which are the gateways to low-energy transportation to many other places in the solar system), near-Earth objects (such as asteroids), and eventually Earth’s moon or the moons of Mars. The committee clearly likes this option because it is new and different from what has gone before, but it does not actually endorse the Flexible Path over Moon First.
5) Finally, it’s notable that the report rules out the Mars First option, even though it had visible and outspoken advocates, such as Buzz Aldrin. “The Committee finds that Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination.” Translation: We can’t do it yet. In spite of what Apollo did in the 1960s, you can’t just leapfrog over two or three generations of technology. (Apollo did leapfrog a generation or so, but only with an extraordinary outlay of money — and I don’t think anyone except Aldrin believes that can happen again.)
In light of the report, the U.S. government has two big decisions to make. The main one is: Do we want a manned space program or do we want a public relations agency? I think that if the question were posed to most Americans in that form, they would rather spend $21 billion for a bona fide human flight program with clearly stated and achievable objectives, rather than spend $18 billion for public relations and for plans on the drawing board that will never be achieved. To come up with those $3 billion, especially in these economic times and in this political climate, would be Obama’s version of hitting a 3-point shot at the buzzer.
The subsidiary question, which is nevertheless important, is: After we have made our choice, what is our strategy? If we can’t afford a manned space program beyond low Earth orbit, we have to decide on which fig leaf to cover up our failure with.
If we can scrape up $3 billion, do we opt for Moon First or the Flexible Path? The question is important because the choice will affect how and whether you can sell this option to the public.
The Flexible Path would give Obama more of a chance to put his own stamp on the space program, rather than following in Bush’s footsteps. I would think that would be very attractive to him. However, as Paul Spudis argues in his blog, the benefit of Moon First is that you are building infrastructure. You don’t have to stake your case on inspiring the public, part of which has never been enthusiastic about the space program anyway. You can work on uninspiring but nevertheless achievable goals, with a long-term aim of making space economically relevant. If you are trying to extend human presence to a new realm, one-time sorties won’t do it; eventually you have to set up a base or a colony. The moon is the only place for that in the near future or even the medium future.
As you can see, I think that Moon First is a little bit more sensible. But I completely acknowledge that I am biased because this is a moon blog. If the Flexible Path is the only way to sell a $3 billion increase to the American public, then I would be glad to support that instead.
Finally, let’s talk about that $3 billion. How much of a burden is it, really? A look at the history of NASA’s budget on Wikipedia is really eye-opening. As a percentage of the Federal budget, NASA’s budget is lower than it has ever been since John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960. We are talking the talk of doing great, ambitious things, but we are not walking the walk.
If we miraculously find $3 billion more for NASA, that will raise its percentage of the Federal budget from 0.52 percent to 0.60 percent. Such extravagance! Such profligacy! Would this take us back to the days of Apollo? Hardly. It would take us all the way back to the days of 2008, the last time NASA represented 0.60 percent of the budget. By comparison, during the buildup to Apollo, NASA’s budget peaked at 5.5 percent of the Federal budget, or ten times as much as today.
So, all things considered, I really don’t think that $3 billion is too much to ask. In fact, I hope that the experts will scrutinize the full report, when it is released, to make sure that we understand that $3 billion figure and make sure that it will really do the job. If so, Obama and Congress should sign off on it gladly, because they are getting a bargain.
I’d like to end on a humorous note. Once a week, I drive senior citizens to doctors’ appointments. Today’s passenger, Lloyd, is a little bit hard of hearing but compensates for it with a great sense of humor. For example, I overheard his nurse asking him today, “Have there been any signs of bleeding lately?” To which he replied, “Signs of breathing? No, no signs of breathing!”
While we were in the waiting room Lloyd was reading a newspaper and came to a headline about the Augustine report: “NASA Told U.S. Can’t Pay for New Moon Flight.” He joked, “New moon flight? Why, there’s a new moon every month!”