Countdown begins for NASA's uncertain future

Image: Shuttle and Ares rocket
NASA's Ares I-X prototype rocket lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 28 while the space shuttle Atlantis sits on Launch Pad 39A in preparation for its own liftoff in mid-November.NASA

Is America's space effort due for a major course correction? Or is staying the course and sticking with NASA's five-year-old plan to return to the moon the best strategy?

In the wake of an independent panel's report on future spaceflight, the answers to those big questions about the nation's next giant leap ... or smaller step ... in outer space are now being debated in the White House and on Capitol Hill. And although projecting the outcome is murky business at best, the countdown is ticking down toward multibillion-dollar decisions that need to be made.

In short, the gearheads have had their say. Now it's up to the politicians.

If it were up to the gearheads — that is, the review panel headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine — the space effort would likely be in for an extreme makeover. Although their mission was only to lay out the options for future exploration, rather than recommend which option to take, the way the options were framed in their 155-page report suggested a dramatically different path for NASA:

  • The space agency would give more consideration to buying rides into low Earth orbit on other people's spaceships, and give more thought to its own Ares I rocket project, which went through a largely successful test flight last week.

  • The International Space Station and the space shuttle fleet, which a now-departed NASA chief once said were serious mistakes, would be given a reprieve — and the station would remain America's main base in space for the next decade.

  • The long-term goal of exploration would shift from a high-tech replay of the Apollo moon effort to an incremental program with different, lower-gravity destinations, such as near-Earth asteroids or Martian moons.

"We have identified, I think, a relatively new approach ... to conducting a spaceflight program somewhat different than what's in the current plan," Augustine told reporters when the final report was released on Oct. 22.

That wasn't necessarily the takeaway for the politicians, however. In Congress, the influential players in space policy tend to come from places where the jobs are. The prevailing view among those player was that $3 billion a year in additional funding would fix what ails the current space program, and that no further course correction was necessary.

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U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — a Florida Democrat who flew on the space shuttle and helped persuade President Barack Obama to give NASA's top spot to his former mission commander, Charles Bolden — said the president assured him "NASA will get enough money to do what it does best: go explore the heavens."

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — an Arizona Democrat who is married to an astronaut and chairs the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee — said the report confirmed her view that the Ares rocket project and other aspects of NASA's Constellation program were "well-managed" and "executable" as long as enough resources were provided.

Giffords cited last week's Ares I-X prototype test flight as further confirmation that NASA was "on track with its human space exploration program."

So should NASA stay the course, or change course?

'Fertile ground for disagreement'
"If what was wanted out of the Augustine exercise was clarity, we didn't get it," said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University. "In the process of arriving at and analyzing the various options, the committee created fertile ground for disagreement."

However, the report did deliver at least three important conclusions that are largely beyond dispute, Logsdon told The first conclusion? "We got the statement that 'the emperor has no clothes,'" he said. "The program that was being carried out could not be successful with the budget profile that was assigned to it."

NASA currently receives about $18 billion per year, or roughly 0.5 percent of the total federal budget. But the Augustine panel estimated that the space agency's plan to return to the moon by 2020 would cost at least $145 billion, which is $45 billion more than originally projected. At the same time, the amount budgeted for space exploration has actually been below the original projections. That's what led the committee to say NASA was on an "unsustainable trajectory."

Logsdon said the report also made clear that NASA's space shuttles couldn't safely finish up their remaining missions by next October as scheduled, and that the schedule would likely have to be stretched out into 2011. And the third point was that "it makes no sense to shut down the space station after five years of operation," even though NASA's current plan calls for quitting the orbital outpost in 2015.

The key point of disagreement focuses on where NASA goes next, and how it gets there.

Ares I in the spotlight
The Augustine report dwelled on private-sector options for getting to destinations in low Earth orbit, such as the space station. Those options include upgraded versions of existing rockets currently used for commercial and military launches, such as the Delta 4 and the Atlas 5. They also include SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Taurus 2, which are currently being developed with NASA support to transport cargo to the space station.

Such options are already being considered in parallel with NASA's $6 billion Ares I development effort. In fact, this month NASA is due to award $50 million in stimulus funds for adapting commercial rockets to carry astronauts. So if NASA goes the commercial route, why should it bother building Ares I?

The Augustine report raises questions about Ares I, saying that the rocket is unlikely to be crew-worthy until 2017 or later. By that time, commercial options might be available for getting to the space station in low Earth orbit, Ares I's prime destination, and thus the project suffered from "a mismatch with the programs it is intended to serve," the report said.

Some panel members said NASA might be better-served by moving directly to the development of a more powerful "Ares V Lite," which would mesh more easily with heavy-lift missions to go beyond Earth orbit. One of the members, XCOR Aerospace's Jeff Greason, said it was his "personal opinion" that commercial rockets would provide a better value than Ares when it came to reaching low Earth orbit.

Others, however, were wary about disrupting what they considered a successful Ares I program. "I personally want to see Ares I going and the program going as it's currently structured," said retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, a panel member who was on the rumored list of prospects for NASA administrator early this year.

Last week's Ares I-X test cost an estimated $445 million, but the Augustine report estimated that the cost of a full-up Ares I launch would be about $1 billion — comparable to the cost of a shuttle launch, or roughly 10 times the cost of an Atlas or Delta launch. But Ares' proponents say that the NASA-led program would result in a safer and more reliable rocket than the commercial alternatives — and that the extra margin of safety is worth the extra cost.

"There are aspects of our safety culture which do increase costs," Wayne Hale, a former shuttle program manager who is now NASA's deputy associate administrator for strategic partnerships, said last month at a spaceflight conference in New Mexico. "To make it will be expensive. It will not be cheap."

The political pros and cons
Will the politicians be persuaded to stick with Ares I, along with the other elements of the back-to-the-moon Constellation program? The members of Congress closest to the space effort are likely to argue for staying the course. If last week's launch had gone seriously wrong, that almost certainly would have spelled the end of the program. As it is, Ares' fans have a success to point to, and Ares' foes have been left to grumble about the relatively few flaws seen during the test flight.

From a launch out of the weeds to a special delivery in orbit, see the best space offerings from January 2014.

Bigger questions about cost vs. benefit remain, however. Just this week, The Orlando Sentinel editorialized that it was time to "pull the plug on Ares" despite last week's success. The newspaper pointed out that the Augustine panel as well as the Government Accountability Office projected that developing the Ares system and other elements of the Constellation flight system would cost billions more than NASA has estimated.

"NASA and its friends will be hard-pressed to persuade the president and lawmakers outside of districts with Ares jobs to pump billions more into a rocket panned by a presidential panel and the GAO," the editorial predicted.

Greason acknowledged that the jobs issue played a role in the debate over Ares but insisted that employment shouldn't be the main issue. "To put it brutally, this trade to my mind is a trade between a space program and a jobs program," he said.

Even NASA's commercial partners are hedging their bets: Brian Duffy, a former astronaut and Lockheed Martin executive who is overseeing the development of NASA's Orion crew exploration vehicle, hinted that a space trip on Ares may not be strictly necessary. The Orion craft "will be capable of riding on whatever launch vehicle is provided," he said at the New Mexico space conference.

Deadlines for decisions
So when will Ares' fate become clear? Logsdon said the first definitive signals could come a few weeks from now, once Congress passes an omnibus spending bill that applies to NASA. The space agency would then have to indicate how much of the current fiscal year's budget is to go toward Ares I development — or not.

"The next question is whether the president is going to identify himself with any decision [on space policy], either separately or in the State of the Union Address," Logsdon said. Back in 2004, then-President George W. Bush heralded the back-to-the-moon plan during a high-profile speech at NASA Headquarters. It remains to be seen whether Obama will do something similar for his own space vision.

Further signals should come in early February, when the White House traditionally issues its spending plan for the next fiscal year. "At least some of the decisions have to be reflected in the 2011 budget," Logsdon said. But even after the budget is announced, NASA and the White House are likely to launch more detailed studies into the options for future space exploration.

Ultimately, it's up to President Barack Obama to lay out his own vision for America's place on the final frontier — and then hope that future policymakers will stay the course once he's out of office.

"I remain guardedly optimistic," Logsdon said. "Mr. Obama has given every indication that he wants a program that is inspirational in character, which means human spaceflight and eventual exploration. But he's facing an extremely tough challenge. It's not as big as what to do in Afghanistan, but in our parochial sector it's a big challenge."