A New Path to the Moon

By | April 1, 2010 | Government, Via Satellite

In December, we discussed the final report of the White House Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, otherwise known as the Augustine Committee. The report found NASA’s current human spaceflight program to be on an “unsustainable trajectory, … pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.”

To solve this issue, the report advocated extending the International Space Station (ISS) lifetime, choosing between a “moon first” and a “flexible path” of exploration of non-planetary inner solar system targets of opportunity, and development of a commercial low-Earth orbit (LEO) human transport capability, freeing NASA to pursue more difficult human spaceflight goals.

As we noted at the time, the report took for granted the imperative for a NASA (trans-LEO) human spaceflight capability, even while recognizing that the NASA of today is not the NASA of the 1960s. In February, the other shoe dropped, as the Obama Administration’s budget for fiscal year 2011 included $19 billion for NASA but proposed a major restructuring of the agency’s mission and a rejection of much of the Augustine recommendations. The 2011 budget rejected the “moon first” proposal by scrapping NASA’s Constellation program: the Orion crew exploration vehicle, the Ares 1 and Ares 5 launch vehicles, and the Altair lunar landing vehicle, on which $9 billion already has been spent.

Under this plan, the Ares, which made its first demonstration flight in October, is slated for the dustbin, along with NASA’s post-space shuttle retirement LEO and trans-LEO human transport capability. Following the end of the shuttle program, NASA will depend on non-U.S. and, potentially, commercial operators to ferry humans to the ISS. The Augustine proposals to extend ISS life, develop international partnerships and encourage commercial human LEO transport development were accepted, but NASA is left with no program to return humans to the moon.

The Obama budget proposal earmarks $6 billion for commercial crew transport and new technologies once the United States is prepared again for human spaceflight beyond LEO. We reported in October on the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to subsidize and encourage commercial players to deliver cargo to orbit. The Obama budget has made commercial service for human space access the only U.S. game in town, and the COTS participants and potential participants have hailed the Obama budget proposals, while members of Congress representing districts invested in the Constellation program have excoriated them.

In particular, concerns have been raised about maintaining the industrial base necessary to produce launch vehicle systems and subsystems in the absence of the Constellation program that may not be counterbalanced by investment in commercial space access capability In February, two dozen members of Congress sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden warning him not to shut down Constellation programs already allocated in the fiscal 2010 budget.

We also advocated in October for the development of a COTS-like program for commercial lunar service and reviewed some of the activity generated by the Google Lunar X Prize. Perhaps we should not mourn for Constellation. It was visibly — even to a layman’s eyes — based on the 1960s-era Apollo program and arguably represented the propping up of incumbent technologies to the detriment of the “creative destruction” necessary to allow new players and technologies to take root that we decried last year in the context of bailing out failing financial institutions and automakers. Besides, it is easy to forget how the Apollo program was part and parcel of the Cold War; attempting to replicate it without that impetus may always have been folly.

Maintaining an industrial base capability is important, but doing so should not come at the expense of investment in new technologies that will be more relevant to future needs, science, exploration and competitiveness. Too many of our industrial policy decisions have been made at the behest of Congressmen with committee seniority and lobbyists and in defiance of the common good and common sense. The Obama budget proposals concerning NASA and the future of human spaceflight are courageous. With the Apollo legacy left to the history it earned and richly deserves, a return to human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit may actually be hastened by the Obama 2011 budget and its radical departure from even what the Augustine Committee proposed.

Is the moon really lost? Maybe not if the commercial space sector steps up.

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.

Live chat by BoldChat