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NASA's vision gets another battering

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan and former aerospace executive Thomas Young testify before the House Science and Technology Committee.
Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan and former aerospace executive Thomas Young testify before the House Science and Technology Committee.Yuri Gripas / Reuters

For the second time this month, NASA's chief faced tough talk on Capitol Hill from lawmakers - as well as from Apollo moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, plus longtime aerospace executive Tom Young. Both astronauts told members of Congress that returning humans to the moon was not only desirable, but necessary for future exploration - even though NASA says it's no longer a priority. To some extent, today's House Science and Technology Committee's hearing was a reprise of the Senate hearing earlier this month, where Armstrong and Cernan played the starring roles. If anything, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and the White House's revised exploration vision came in for even harsher scrutiny. "By now you probably have figured out that this committee is not with you," Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., told Bolden. The administrator said he was getting that message. NASA vs. CongressThe main themes of the criticism are that NASA should keep going with the Constellation program and not rely on buying launch services from commercial providers. Constellation calls for the development of new NASA rockets, starting with the solid-fueled Ares 1, to service the International Space Station and eventually return to the moon. The White House's budget proposal calls for the cancellation of Constellation, while going ahead with the development of some of the hardware, such as a scaled-down Orion crew capsule for emergency rescue and a heavy-lift rocket for trips beyond Earthorbit. The Obama administration sided with an independent panel's report concluding that the original Constellation budget and timeline were wildly unrealistic. When the space shuttle fleet is retired, late this year or perhaps sometime next year, NASA would buy rides to the space station through at least 2020 - first from the Russians, then from private companies potentially ranging from Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences to new entrants such as SpaceX. Bolden told lawmakers that the Orion Lite capsule, currently known as the Crew Rescue Vehicle, could be ready for flight in the 2013-2015 time frame, at a cost of $4.5 billion. He said a revised development plan would be ready for review next week. The NASA chief acknowledged that it would be cheaper to pay the Russians for Soyuz rides, but "cheap is not what we're looking for ... we're looking for domestic capability." Few in Congress are happy about the shift away from Constellation, and in fact current law forces NASA to keep going ahead with the program until Congress says otherwise. Bolden repeatedly acknowledged that point during the hearing. But under questioning, he also acknowledged that the program's manager, Jeff Hanley, was being reassigned to another position as deputy director for strategic plans at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Hanley took a high profile in planning continued testing for Constellation hardware. (NASA Watch has Hanley's brief farewell e-mail.) Lawmakers worried that canceling Constellation would leave the United States in a "Third World category in spaceflight" (said Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn.) ... would represent a "U-turn" from the vision laid out five decades ago by President John Kennedy (said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.) ... and would leave the country's aerospace workforce "completely demoralized." "Heck, I'm demoralized just looking at it," said Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md. Astronauts vs. NASAArmstrong, Cernan and Young were similarly downbeat. Their written statements, along with Bolden's, are all available through the House committee's website. Here are some highlights: Neil Armstrong, who became the first man to walk on the moon during Apollo 11 in 1969, took particular aim at President Barack Obama's statement that NASA should pass up human flights to the moon because "we've been there before": "Some question why America should return to the moon. 'After all,' they say, 'we have already been there.' I find that mystifying. It would be as if 16th-century monarchs proclaimed that 'we need not go to the New World, we have already been there.' Or as if President Thomas Jefferson announced in 1808 that Americans 'need not go west of the Mississippi, the Lewis and Clark expedition has already been there.' Armstrong touted the moon as a test bed for longer trips, a scientific destination in its own right, and a potential resource for exotic materials such as helium-3 fusion fuel and palladium-group metals. When Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, asked whether returning to the moon was "a nice-to-have or a need-to-have," Armstrong answered, "It's both, sir." Gene Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the moon during Apollo 17 in 1972, largely reprised his "Mission to Nowhere" testimony from the earlier hearing. He surmised that the originators of the revised policy were promoting their own agenda rather than that of NASA or Congress: "With the submission of the FY2011 budget, the administration and the originators of this proposal were either misinformed or showing extreme naivete, or I can only conclude are willing to take accountability for a calculated plan to dismantle America's leadership in the world of human space exploration, resulting in NASA becoming nothing more than a research facility. In either case, I believe this proposal is a travesty which flows against the grain of over 200 years of our history and, today, against the will of the majority of Americans." Tom Young, a retired Lockheed Martin executive, recapped NASA's legacy in human spaceflight and said the proposed move to a more commercial way of exploring space "will be devastating" for that legacy: "A fundamental flaw in the proposed human spaceflight program is a commercial crew initiative which abandons the proven methodology I have described. NASA's role is reduced to defining safety requirements and general oversight. An argument for pursuing this new human spaceflight approach is that the proven methodology is too expensive. This same rationale caused the Air Force and NASA to try similar approaches in the 1990s. ... The results were devastating, and the adverse impact is still with us today. ... On average, programs implemented using this approach resulted in half the intended program for twice the cost, and they were six years late on average." Young pointed to examples ranging from cost overruns on the NPOESS weather satellite program (managed by Northrop Grumman) to the failures of NASA's Mars missions in 1999 (managed in part by Young's own Lockheed Martin). Back in 2000, Young defended NASA's "faster, cheaper, better" approach, but he apparently has since changed his mind. The other side of the issueRep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., noted that the list of witnesses wasn't exactly balanced. "We have not received both sides of this issue at all ... I'm just saying, there is another side," he told panel chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn. Gordon noted that Bolden had spent a long time defending the new policy, that White House science adviser John Holdren had been asked to attend but couldn't show up ... and that several individuals and groups had sent letters to the committee in support of the policy. Chief among those are Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmate on the moon; and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart. For years, Schweickart has been trying to draw attention to the threat posed by near-Earth asteroids, and he particularly likes NASA's new emphasis on asteroid exploration. He's not the only one: One of the few bright spots in the testimony came when Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., said she was excited about the idea of going to an asteroid. Bolden said that NASA was making plans for a robotic landing on an asteroid by 2016, using an experimental Hall thruster system - leading up to a crewed mission by 2025. "When a kid sees something rendezvous with an asteroid in 2016, let me tell you, they're going to be excited," Bolden said. But it was clear from the tenor of the hearing that NASA's space vision will likely go through another revision before NASA approves $19 billion in funding. When Rohrabacher worried that Congress was rushing to judgment, Gordon told him, "You can be well assured that we are not one hearing away from an authorization." And even Bolden seemed to hint that NASA still has plans for the moon. "We're going to take incremental steps to leave low Earth orbit. ... The steps are International Space Station, the moon and asteroids, and eventually Mars," Bolden said. So what's the best way to boldly go? Or is the trip beyond Earth orbit worth all the money, risk and aggravation? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below - and if I come across the letters from Aldrin, Schweickart or others who corresponded with Congress, I'll make sure to link to them here. Bonus round: Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told Obama today in a letter that he intended to include money for an extra shuttle flight in the NASA reauthorization bill. The mission would kick in if the shuttle Atlantis, which landed just today, is not needed as a rescue vehicle for the current "last shuttle flight," scheduled for launch in November or later. The scenario would be what NASA planners (and Nelson) have been discussing for weeks: a space station resupply flight in the summer of 2011 with a pared-down crew of four astronauts aboard. "I look forward to working with you to make this important mission a reality," Nelson wrote. Correction for 4:25 p.m. ET May 26: For a while there I had the wrong party affiliation for California Republican Dana Rohrabacher. Update for 5:50 p.m. ET May 26: Buzz Aldrin's letter to the committee says NASA's revised space plan is "a rich vision that I would hope that we could all embrace." He said he shared the concern voiced by Armstrong and Cernan about a gap in America's access to space, and he called for Obama to issue an executive order requiring NASA and the Air Force to work together to modify existing expendable rockets for human-rated flights. He also called for the development of a new space glider that could be launched atop such rockets. Rusty Schweickart's letter says NASA was "on a dead-end road ... a path to nowhere." Going back to the moon wouldn't be ambitious enough, in Schweickart's view, while going straight to Mars would be too ambitious. Schweickart touted sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid as "an intermediate Mars trajectory which, in my opinion, makes much more sense." He also supported shifting more responsibility to the private sector to support "the development of an independent, private, commercial capability with a huge upside potential for jobs and, indeed, world industrial leadership." Correction for 9 p.m. ET May 27: I originally wrote "$4.5 million" for the cost of building the Orion Lite vehicle, but of course the cost estimate is actually $4.5 billion. Thanks to Cosmic Log correspondents for setting me straight. I think I'll blame this one on the new publishing system. ;-) I've also received and posted PDF copies of the letters sent to the committee by the Planetary Society and a group of science and space organizations in support of Obama's space policy. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."