Artwork from the 1970s shows an orbital fuel depot for outward-bound spaceships.
Two years ago, retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine headed up a commission that led the White House to scrap NASA's "unexecutable" back-to-the-moon program and focus instead on a step-by-step path to send humans beyond Earth orbit, to an asteroid by 2025, and to the environs of Mars by the 2030s.
Now NASA is nearing the end of the shuttle program, gearing up to mark Thursday's 50th anniversary of U.S. human spaceflight ... and dealing with an uncertain future for human spaceflight. Augustine says NASA is mostly following the short-term prescription he and his colleagues have laid out, but he worries that NASA's long-term future could be a case of deja vu all over again.
In an interview, Augustine told me that NASA could once again face a situation where its budget doesn't match the task it's been given. The current year's $18.45 billion budget is a bit less than last year's, and includes $3 billion for work on a heavy-lift rocket and a spaceship that could eventually go beyond Earth orbit.
Norman Augustine was chairman of the White House's Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in 2009.
"I think with regard to this year's budget, the match is reasonable," Augustine said. "But if we're to have a program of the type that we described as attractive in the report that we put out, there's not enough money in the out years to do it. The question is whether we'll add that money in the out years or not. If we don't have it, then we're probably pursuing the wrong program. If we add the money, then this will be the right program, in my judgment."
What does he think it will take?
"Unless that money is increased by about $3 billion a year, real dollars, over what it was at the time we did our study, then this whole thing is very tenuous," he said. "But if that funding is made available ... the path we're on so far is very consistent with what I think most of us would see as a sensible program."
He said NASA already had many of the pieces in place for a sensible space program: The agency is supporting the development of commercial spaceships to service the International Space Station, and that effort is coming along "better than I expected," Augustine said. There'll still be a gap of several years after the shuttle program, during which NASA will have to rely on the Russians to send U.S. astronauts to the space station. But Augustine sees that as unavoidable at this point. NASA just couldn't afford working on the next generation of beyond-orbit spacecraft at the same time it was operating the shuttle program, he said.
Augustine acknowledges that not everyone in the space community agrees with him.
"Some of the veterans and some of my most admired friends — Neil Armstrong, for instance — simply don't think it's a good idea," he said. "Other astronauts do think it's a good idea. But the question is, what are the real choices we have? NASA has a certain amount of money, and we could spend that money transporting astronauts into low Earth orbit, basically forever, or we could turn that mission over to somebody else and let NASA use its money and its talents where I think it should be spent — and that is doing more demanding and more exciting things that the public would like to support, mainly exploring and science. NASA has just got to unload the trucking business, frankly."
Why do it at all?
"Many of the justifications that have been given in the past, I would not agree with. We know that there's a huge positive impact on the economy, and we develop new products ... but I believe these things alone don't justify the human spaceflight program," Augustine said. "The only way you can fully justify the human spaceflight program is in the form of intangibles. That is, great nations do great things. President Kennedy said great nations like to explore. If we don't do these things, others will. Do we want to be a part of it, or do we want to stand back and watch?"
He noted that Americans are generally supportive of the space program, particularly when they find out that it costs roughly 15 cents per person per day. "But one of the problems with the space program is that we need some exciting new things," he said. "The previous plan was 'send us a number of billions of dollars and in 25 years we'll go back to the moon.' That really doesn't inspire anybody."
So what does Augustine think would inspire the public? What's his vision for the next decade or two?
"The ultimate goal — and it depends mostly on money, a little bit on science but mostly on money — would be to go to Mars and have a human landing on Mars," he said. "In the interim, it's very clear that we could dock with an asteroid, we could go to one of the Lagrangian points, we could go to [the Martian moons] Phobos or Deimos, we could circumnavigate Mars, we could orbit Mars. I think there's this whole series of steps we could take, that would let us have some accomplishments along the way. It might include actually going back to the moon, as a sort of way station to go to Mars, but I don't think going back to the moon is an end in itself anymore."
... And one more thing:
"It's my belief that we will eventually have widespread tourism into orbit. ... It's kind of like airlines were in the '30s. They used to be like launch vehicles companies are today. In the '30s, of course, the government guaranteed that airlines could haul the mail and get contracts. Well, if the government will give contracts to these firms, and guarantee to haul fuel into low Earth orbit, put fueling stations up there and so on, I think they can make a business out of this. I think there'll be a commercial business one day — maybe not in my lifetime, but one day not all that far away where tourism will be very prominent."
Is that a vision worth an extra $3 billion a year? Or, if you use the per-person pricing plan, an extra 3 cents a day? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
Update for 1:45 p.m. ET May 4: For a different perspective on how the space effort's future is shaping up, check out this Q&A with Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, conducted by the Houston Chronicle's Eric Berger. Cernan was critical about NASA's push for spaceflight commercialization last year, and he's still doubtful that the "young entrepreneurs" in the space business can do the job. "I don’t have a lot of confidence in that end of the commercial space spectrum getting us back into orbit any time soon," he said. He's more encouraged to see that the more established aerospace players, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and ATK, are becoming interested in the commercial push. He also says that NASA was wrong to turn its back on the back-to-the-moon plan, and that if "we aren’t capable of getting back into space in four or five years, the will just won’t be there."
Paul Spudis, senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, points to Cernan's remarks as well as Augustine's comments in a posting to his Once and Future Moon blog, titled "Who's Short-Sighted?" Spudis says it's shortsighted not to focus on the moon, which is the closest world available for setting up an extraterrestrial settlement. I should make clear that the shortsightedness Augustine is most concerned about doesn't have to do so much with the back-to-the-moon debate, but with the idea that NASA generally doesn't get the funding to match the exploration task it is given. That's what doomed the Constellation Program, and that's what could doom the "flexible path" to Mars as well.
Update for 2:30 a.m. ET May 10: Here's a tardy tip o' the Log to IEEE for arranging the interview with Augustine, an IEEE Life Fellow and one of the featured personages on a newly launched "IEEE Solutionist" website.
More on the path ahead:
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