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Space pioneers fight policy

 

Cliff Owen / AP
  Click for video: Apollo 11 commander Neil
Armstrong, left, looks on as Apollo 17's Gene Cernan makes a point during the Senate hearing. Click on the image to watch some of Armstrong's testimony.


The first man and the last man to walk on the moon spoke out forcefully against NASA's revised vision for future spaceflight today, suggesting that the space agency and President Barack Obama were in effect bamboozled.

"This budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and is in fact a blueprint for a mission to nowhere," Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, who pledged just before leaving the moon in 1972 that "we shall return," told the Senate Commerce Committee.

Cernan said the Obama administration's decision to bypass the moon and settle on a more open-ended path to deep space was "most likely formulated in haste" by budget experts and science policy advisers, with little input from NASA itself.

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, arguably the world's best-known living astronaut, said in his written testimony that the plan was "likely contrived by a very small group in secret who persuaded the president that this was a unique opportunity to put his stamp on a new and innovative program."

"I believe the president was poorly advised," Armstrong said in his written remarks.

It's rare for retired astronauts to take such a public stand against U.S. space policy, and particularly rare for Armstrong, who is renowned for his reticence. However, Armstrong and Cernan - along with Jim Lovell, who flew around the moon on Apollo 8 and Apollo 13 - made their dissatisfaction known last month in a letter made public by NBC News.

During today's high-profile hearing, Armstrong and Cernan urged Congress to add back funding for the development of a NASA rocket to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA's current plan, in contrast, will rely on the Russians as well as U.S. commercial launch providers to provide space station transport services.

The Apollo astronauts said they were skeptical that the commercial sector - which is likely to include longtime launch providers such as the Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences as well as newcomers such as SpaceX - could operate spaceships as safely and reliably as NASA will require.

SpaceX is due to launch its first Falcon 9 rocket within the next few weeks - a flight test that would mark a significant step in its drive to deliver cargo to the space station.

NASA's current plan calls for $6 billion dollars to be set aside over the next five years for the commercial development effort. SpaceX and other companies say they could start launching astronauts in as little as three to five years. The space agency's administrator, Charles Bolden, told senators today that he expected the first commercial crew flight to the space station to take place in 2015. 

 

NASA TV
  Click for video: Watch Apollo 17 commander
Gene Cernan's opening statement at the hearing.


Cernan, however, said it "might take as much as a full decade" for commercial spaceships to become available, at a cost two to three times greater than projected. He said the commercial companies and NASA were underestimating how much effort would be required to certifying new rockets for human spaceflight.

In the meantime, America's space effort would have to rely on Russian space transports, "leaving us hostage as a nation to foreign powers for some indeterminate time."

He urged the senators to allocate more funding for NASA's Ares 1 rocket development effort, which the White House wants to cancel as a money-saving measure.  "Get it up, get it running," Cernan told the panel.

In response to questions, Bolden estimated that keeping the Ares 1 project going would cost an additional $1 billion to $1.6 billion - depending on how much of that work could be incorporated into a more ambitious plan to develop a new heavy-lift rocket for trips beyond low Earth orbit.

Bolden said about $9 billion in all has been spent so far on NASA's back-to-the-moon Constellation program, and added that "not a dime of that has been wasted." Although the White House's budget proposal calls for Constellation's cancellation, current legislation requires NASA to stick with the program until Congress decides otherwise.

NASA's current budget plan faces stiff opposition in Congress, in part because canceling Constellation will result in thousands of layoffs. During today's hearing, White House science adviser John Holdren maintained that keeping Constellation was unworkable, due to "technical and budgetary difficulties ... that we inherited."

"It clearly was time to push the reset button," Holdren told senators.

The White House's "flexible-path" plan for space exploration was formulated after months of deliberations by an independent review panel, headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine. The panel concluded that the Constellation program, which called for astronauts to be sent back to the moon by 2020, was underfunded and unsustainable.

"It was our conclusion that there was really no way to conduct a human exploration program that would be meaningful and safe at all," Augustine told the senators.

The revised plan calls for extending support of the International Space Station from 2015 to 2020. NASA would have to rely on the Russians and commercial launch providers after the expected retirement of the shuttle fleet in late 2010 or early 2011.

The Orion crew capsule, which was being developed for trips to the moon as well as the space station, would be used instead in scaled-down form as a lifeboat for the space station. NASA would begin developing the new heavy-lift rocket by 2015. The first destination beyond Earth orbit would be an asteroid, in the 2025 time frame, and crewed spaceships would be sent into Martian orbit sometime in the mid-2030s.

Senators and witnesses sparred over whether the revised plan was hatched without adequate consideration. Bolden, for example, was repeatedly asked whether he was consulted in advance of February's budget announcment. Bolden said that he was, before a trip to Israel.

The NASA chief was also asked whether he told Armstrong and Cernan during a briefing last week that the commercial space effort may need a bailout like the one given to America's auto industry. Bolden wasn't sure he said that, but Cernan was sure that he did. "As a matter of fact, it may be the largest bailout in history," Cernan quoted Bolden as saying.

Bolden did say during the hearing that he expected commercial launch providers to run into technical problems, and that he would "do everything in my power" to make sure they were successful.

There have been rumblings about a plan that might give NASA extra money for following up on the Ares 1 development effort. Such an arrangement is being pushed by Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who heads the Senate's subcommittee on space (and flew on the space shuttle with Bolden in 1986).

In addition, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Republican who is the Commerce Committee's ranking minority member, suggested that the remaining shuttle flights could be stretched out for another two years.

The shuttle Atlantis is due to be launched on its last scheduled mission Friday, setting the stage for retirement of the fleet after Discovery and Endeavour take their turns later this year.  Bolden said he would be in favor of adding one more shuttle flight to the schedule, most likely in 2011. But he said there would be no backup shuttle available to rescue a crew in the event of an emergency in orbit. (Observers say Russian Soyuz craft would have to be employed instead.)

By the end of the hearing, the message came through loud and clear that Congress would make revisions in the NASA budget plan - most likely to keep additional elements of the Constellation program in play. Hutchison said Bolden is "going to try to work with us" on such revisions.

Written statements for the hearing (PDF files):

Update for 7:40 p.m. ET: Some senators expressed doubts about NASA's plan to support commercial space transport, but others were supportive. As you might expect, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation focused on the supportive comments in its recap of the hearing.

Update for 9 p.m. ET: I corrected the reference to Lovell's spaceflight experience. Also, it's worth noting that some other prominent astronauts (including Sally Ride and Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmate, Buzz Aldrin) are in favor of the Obama plan. For some straight talk, check out Rand Simberg's take on the hearing at Transterrestrial Musings. You'll also find some great comments at NASA Watch.


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