The Big Three — useful or useless?
About every five years, a committee is trotted out to report on the status and future of human spaceflight. Each of these reports generates a lot of disruption, press reports and head scratching. When it all dies down, very little (if anything) is accomplished. The last three of these ponderous tomes generated over the past ten years nicely document the decline and fall of the American civil space program. I thought it might be instructive to examine them on a comparative basis, showing how the initial promise and optimism of each report led ultimately to disappointment, with the space program becoming less capable and less secure – a continuous downward trajectory for human space exploration.
Let us begin ten years ago with the emergence of the report that I was directly involved with – the Aldridge Report. This document was the product of a Presidential Commission. (Each succeeding report was produced by a group with less bureaucratic stature but increased scope of responsibility, which should tell you something right there.) The Aldridge effort was chartered to study and report on how the new Vision for Space Exploration (the VSE, articulated by President George W. Bush in January, 2004) should be implemented. Our task was not to question the direction or strategic aims of the VSE, but merely to understand how NASA should organize itself to execute it.
The Aldridge Commission members (who met for 6 months) were in agreement with the long-term aims of the VSE. However, there were individual differences over how to implement it, which generated extensive debate on exactly what steps were most important and critical, as opposed to which were merely optional and desirable. The Aldridge Commission report strongly favored a more streamlined and efficient space agency, including innovations such as creating incentive prizes and awards for technology development, contracting with commercial entities for launch services, and converting the NASA field centers into federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) – a model similar to that of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is run for the government by Caltech. One of our most important (and ignored) recommendations was to re-create the National Space Council, a White House-level body to oversee and periodically review agency progress on implementing the VSE – a step deemed vital to ensure continuity of purpose and as protection against any unraveling of the direction of the program. The VSE had strong bi-partisan support and had been blessed twice by the Congress, once under Republican Party leadership, once under Democratic Party leadership.
My personal disappointment with the aftermath of this report was the agency’s deft shrugging off of the oversight recommendation. Commission members were invited back to NASA Headquarters six months after the report had been submitted to receive a presentation on how well the agency had implemented our recommendations. Judging from the dog-and-pony show we received, it was clear that it was to be pretty much business as usual, which I suppose is not too surprising. No Administrator wants someone looking over their shoulder, criticizing their performance, or reminding them about what they were tasked to do. Thus, no executive oversight was created, a deficiency that would be felt sharply in the years ahead.
Five years after the Aldridge report, a new Presidential administration established the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, a.k.a., the Augustine Committee (named for its Chairman, retired former CEO of Lockheed-Martin, Norman Augustine). Note that this was a committee (not a commission), which placed it one rung lower on the bureaucratic totem pole. (Our commissions were signed by the President; this committee’s appointments were from the Administrator of NASA. See this.) This group was chartered not only to review and evaluate NASA’s progress towards the implementation of its human spaceflight mission, but also to assess that mission and make recommendations as to whether a shift in goal, destination or emphasis was warranted. Like the Aldridge Commission five years earlier, the Augustine committee was to expire after 6 months.
Reportedly, this group used detailed technical analysis (by the Aerospace Corp.) to support their conclusions, although many of their ground rule assumptions could be questioned. Of course, one can always get the answer one is seeking by defining the boundary conditions accordingly. The Augustine Committee received presentations on the status of Project Constellation, NASA’s implementation of the VSE, derived from their own internal architecture study – the ESAS in 2006. They concluded that while the Constellation approach was technically sound, it would require more funding (an additional $3 billion per year) to meet its announced schedule (note: schedule, not deadline). They suggested that a better approach would be to pursue what they called the “Flexible Path,” in which technology would be pursued now and destinations would be picked later. They also introduced the possibility of a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid as a destination alternative to the lunar surface (green eyeshade thinking, as no lander would be required with that choice – and thus, a lunar return would be eliminated).
The consequence of the Augustine report was a foregone conclusion. The administration provided the committee with artificially low budget numbers (the “FY 2010” budget line; see page 81 of Augustine), essentially guaranteeing that almost any forward path would be found to be “unaffordable.” It’s not like this administration had a problem with spending money – they had almost doubled the national debt through spending well over one trillion dollars per year on “economic stimulus,” none of which found its way into NASA coffers. Moreover, while it was often pointed out that the retirement of the Shuttle had been ordered by the previous administration, what was usually not also noted is that its retirement was being done as part of a process to replace the existing human spaceflight system with a new one. So, while development of the new system was terminated (with no replacement in sight) the old system was retired on schedule and sent off to museums with great fanfare. Agency direction and money was redirected to private companies to encourage the development of a commercial human spaceflight capability, and a vehicle(s) with which NASA would (ultimately) be able to purchase Earth to LEO transportation. We were (and remain) unable to transport astronauts into space and are dependent on Russia for a ride to our space station.
Congress did not stand idly by during this strategic confusion. After considerable whining and foot-dragging by NASA, Congress included specific direction to continue building the trans-LEO Orion spacecraft and a new, Shuttle-derived heavy lift vehicle. This effort is proceeding, although NASA still has no well-defined strategic horizon or destination that would make sensible use of this vehicle. A human mission to Mars (the “ultimate goal”) is both technically and fiscally distant; agency “happy talk” about the imminence of such a mission is meaningless drivel. Because human missions to near-Earth asteroids were also determined to be infeasible, an “asteroid retrieval” stunt mission was presented as the next new destination – a make-work fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of having no place to send Orion and nothing to do once we got there (making it an easy target for criticism and future cancellation).
Now, five years after the Augustine Report, comes the National Research Council’s Pathways to Exploration. This report, chartered by the Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, is a product of the Committee on Human Spaceflight, an ad hoc group appointed by NRC staff – and another rung down the bureaucratic ladder. Taking over three years (unlike the 6 month timeframe of the two earlier reports), this report canvassed the widest cross-section of the space community and American society to address the questions of “where and why” humans should go in space. The effort produced a massive 258-page book, delving into questions of possible destinations, public opinion, architectural variables, necessary technologies and the “pathways” that combine these variables into executable programs.
The most notable feature of the NRC report is its framework assumption: the purpose of a national human spaceflight program is “exploration.” Thus, the guiding questions of the NRC study are “how far can humans go?” and “what can they do when they get there?” This greatly circumscribes the actual possibilities of human spaceflight. One can imagine people doing many different things in space. Most certainly, scientific exploration is one of them, but it is by no means the only thing. The NRC report spent almost no time considering the broad field of space applications and utilization, in which people go to and come from various destinations in space, in order to accomplish a wide variety of tasks – to build, to provision, to mine, to remain, to observe, to prosper, to live. The entire field of creating wealth from space appears nowhere in the NRC report; it is only concerned with continuing the existing paradigm of launching self-contained missions from Earth, collecting data, and returning safely. Sustainability of the program – not human presence in space – is the objective.
Although the NRC report contains much solid analysis, it ultimately presents us with a future that is largely unattainable. Repeating the ingrained meme of “Mars is the ultimate goal” does nothing to chart the correct path forward from where we are now – a billion miles and a trillion dollars away from any human Mars mission. Instead, they could have endorsed an incremental and gradual extension of human reach – from LEO to cislunar to the lunar surface to trans-lunar to the planets. At each step, the capabilities and facilities needed to enable the next step are developed. In other words, we need to build a sustainable path using the resources already in space. If the alleged technical and policy “experts” on space do not advocate a logical and sensible path, why should we expect it from our political leaders? In order to assure private investors that their capital has some reasonable protections – that their involvement is worth taking a considerable risk for a suitable reward – a long-term, sustainable national effort in space must be demonstrated. Without it, neither program will be implemented, nor remain sustainable.
Our civil space program (and the future for commercial space) is diminished as each major report comes and goes. The impact of the latest NRC report was virtually nil – NASA continues to plan its asteroid retrieval stunt mission and the Potemkin Village “commercial space program” is trotted out to demonstrate that we are accomplishing something. Press releases and debuts of product mock-ups have replaced actual flight hardware and experience. The NASA budget remains static, while the agency and Administration have given Congress and the public no particular reason to believe it is going anywhere or doing anything to deserve any more funding than it’s currently getting.
Once America and her partners took on, executed and achieved great and challenging tasks – a hallmark of vibrant, healthy countries guided by interested, knowledgeable leadership. Now, challenges are being denied and death by committee has replaced hard work and breakthroughs. National advancement and achievement is stymied. Americans recognize that this is the wrong trajectory for the country and wince as the nation retreats further down the ladder. There will be no pride or excitement surrounding a program that continues in total disarray. There will be no great wave of interested students clamoring to excel and achieve. What’s up next for our national manned space flight program? What shape will the wrecking ball take and who will be tasked to deliver the deathblow? I shudder in anticipation of the next quinquennial report.