The Sciences

The Future of NASA

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 11, 2009 11:00 AM


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I'll be honest: I don't know what the future of NASA is right now. Worse? NASA doesn't know either. Here's the situation right now. The Shuttle is planned to fly her last mission in September 2010, the end of the fiscal year. The International Space Station is not budgeted beyond 2016 -- that was on purpose; the Bush Administration couldn't guarantee funds beyond then. NASA is constructing hardware for the Constellation program, the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets that are planned to pick up where the Shuttle program leaves off. However, there is no way the Ares rockets can be ready before the Shuttle program ends, and in fact 2015 is the earliest it can be used... and the delay is likely to be longer than that. That means there will be a gap in the U.S. capability to get humans into space, and that gap may be 5 years long or more. More money thrown at Constellation won't shorten the gap; only extending the Shuttle program will. And there really isn't any meaningful way to do that for more than a year; hardware like launch facilities are already being converted to use by Constellation. That's where we stand. In May of 2009, the Obama Administration created a group, now called the Augustine Commission, to investigate the current program and look at alternatives for NASA. They just released their findings yesterday (PDF). Note that these are not the detailed conclusions of the commission, but a short version with details to be given later in the longer, final report. Their conclusions are interesting. First, they say that the goals must be determined (Moon, Mars, near-Earth asteroid landings, and so on) before the hardware is built. Fine; NASA has stated they want to go back to the Moon. However, is Ares the way to go? Augustine says not really. They suggest a new system, an "Ares Lite" that has less capability than the standard Ares configuration but would be cheaper, or possibly a Shuttle-derived launch vehicle using hardware well-tested in over a hundred Shuttle missions. The problem is, I don't see any way that kind of thing can be done in anywhere near the same time as the actual Ares rockets being built now. The report states that this can extend the ISS to 2020 and even keep the Shuttle going (in the Shuttle-derived version) until 2015, closing the gap. This assumes a successor to the Shuttle can be flying by 2015. The report doesn't give details, but I see no way to have a new system designed, built, tested, and ready to go in five years. Perhaps the final version of the report will detail that. Mike Griffin, the ex-head of NASA, didn't care much for this report. In fact, in an email, he blasted it pretty viciously (and by blast I mean holy cow someone better give him his blood pressure medicine STAT!). As he points out, the Augustine report doesn't give much space to simply fully funding Constellation. The actual project has been underfunded, quite seriously, almost since its inception. That has resulted in delays and other woes. Given adequate funding, what we're already building may be sufficient to do everything we need. Griffin has other accusations about the Commission, some of which I assume are fair, though I don't have expertise in such things as the difference in lunar payload capabilities of Ares Lite versus the Ares 5. I can take his word on it. However, I also think he let his temper run away from him a bit; he lambastes the Commission for talking about de-orbiting the ISS in 2016, but to be fair they are presenting that as a possibility due to the tightly constrained budget environment. They actually say:

The Committee finds that the return on investment of ISS to both the United States and the international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life to 2020. It seems unwise to de-orbit the Station after 25 years of assembly and only five years of operational life. Not to extend its operation would significantly impair U.S. ability to develop and lead future international spaceflight partnerships.

As I read it, their point is that to extend the Shuttle (even a year), develop a new rocket system, and keep the ISS flying may not be possible without a lot more money. They suggest $3 billion a year more starting in 2010. That may sound like a lot, but in fact it's a tiny amount of the overall national budget. NASA gets roughly $20 billion now, and that's less than 1% of the total US budget. So here we are. We have a Shuttle winding down, a rocket gearing up but leaving a five-or-more-year gap in our ability to lift people off this mud ball, and a space station that has cost something around $100 billion dollars but which has yet to prove itself worth even a fraction of that amount, and still only fundable until 2020 or so. Great. So what now? I don't know. The best thing that could happen would be for the 400+ members of Congress to reverse their cranial-rectal inversion, give NASA the money it needs to do what it needs to do (though from where is a whole 'nuther story), and then let us go to the Moon. But that still leaves the gap -- which will not be filled by commercial space flight, at least not substantively until the gap is almost over anyway -- the ISS, and any potential future budget cuts. Obama has been fairly slow in dealing with NASA, taking a long time to appoint a new chief. This Commission report -- prompted by Obama -- basically says we have to do something now. What will he do?

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