Augustine Report Should Serve as Call to Action

By | December 1, 2009 | Government, Via Satellite

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued the final report of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, otherwise known as the Augustine report, on Oct 22. As expected from its preliminary report release in September, the report seeks to redirect and rationalize NASA’s priorities and suggest how the agency should complement the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry.

The Augustine report attempts to answer several questions about the future of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station (ISS) and the most practicable strategies for taking human crews to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and trans-LEO exploration. The report is not comforting but offers hopeful and arguably practicable conclusions.

In particular, the report finds that NASA’s current human space flight program is on an unsustainable trajectory, in that it is “pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.” The Aries 1-X launch vehicle (which performed its first demonstration flight on Oct. 28), Aries 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle and Orion crew capsule combination will not be fully operational until at least 2017, more than a year after the planned retirement of the ISS, leaving Aries/Orion, once in service, with no destination to serve (an uncomfortable reminder of the Space Shuttle’s own early history). In addition, the rollout of Aries/Orion leaves the United States with at least a seven year gap between the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, coinciding with the ISS planned lifetime, and, therefore, leaving the United States wholly dependent on non-NASA human access to space and to the ISS for the remainder of its planned life. The Committee also found that a return to the moon by the early 2020s would require at least $50 billion in additional funding above the approximately $100 billion NASA is scheduled to spend on human spaceflight in the next ten years.

In light of these challenges, some of the Committee’s detailed recommendations predictably are boilerplate (“NASA’s budget should match its mission and its goals”), but some are useful and thought-provoking. Among these are: The active engagement of international partners in human space exploration, extending the ISS lifetime (in part to promote international partnerships), development of a heavy-lift LEO capability that includes the ability to break Earth orbit and encouragement through a new competition of commercial human LEO transport capability (stating that the United States needs a means of transporting astronauts to LEO, but it need not be provided by NASA). Freeing NASA of this requirement would allow the agency to focus on more challenging projects (this column argued in October for extending NASA’s existing Commercial Orbit Transportation Services program from LEO to lunar service).

The Augustine Committee clearly recognizes that this is not the NASA of the 1960s and argues that the national will does not accommodate a new space race-like effort to go beyond LEO. It may be that this reality must be accepted and accommodated, although the apparent lack of national will predates the current economic crisis and may say more about recent political leadership and vision than it does about current economic events.

The Committee finds that Mars is the ultimate human exploration destination of the inner solar system but advocates a “moon first” or so-called “flexible path” of exploration of inner solar system non-planetary targets of interest and convenience (asteroids and comets, for example). The Committee states that trans-LEO human exploration is not feasible under NASA’s fiscal 2010 budget guideline but that meaningful human space exploration could be commenced by increasing annual expenditures over the next five years by about $3 billion above that planned for fiscal 2010 and then adjusted annually for inflation.

This is not chicken feed, but given the American space heritage throughout the last 50 years compared with, for example, what we are pouring down the wells of our hedge-funds-with-banks-attached and Central Asian conflicts (without any intention to argue for or against their necessity or worthiness but just to make the comparison), we should be embarrassed to shrink from our space future for so comparatively modest an investment.

The entire space community should rally to, and lobby for, our human space future.

Owen D. Kurtin is a founder and principal of private investment firm The Vinland Group LLC and a practising attorney in New York City. He may be reached by e-mail at okurtin@vinlandgroup.com.

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