The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Charles Bolden might soon be nominated to become NASA administration, but even if he is a lot of questions about NASA’s future have yet to be answered. (credit: NASA)

Exchanging uncertainties

While the term “space community” gets bandied about a lot in the US—including in the pages of this publication—it’s arguable whether such an entity really exists. The potential constituents of any such community, from government agencies and members of Congress to aerospace corporations and activist organizations, are diverse enough that it’s hard to see them aligned into any sort of coherent community. However, sometimes there are cases where the term can be used in connection with a particular issue or concern.

And in recent weeks the mood of the space community—or at least that subset interested in civil space—could be best described as angst or impatience. Late last month marked the 100th day of the Obama Administration, a much-hyped (if otherwise relatively meaningless) milestone, and there was still no nominee for the position of NASA administrator. Politicians and newspaper editorialists alike expressed their worries that this was a sign that NASA was not a priority for the White House. A lack of a full-time leader created an uncertainty in NASA’s future direction at a critical time for the space agency, they argued, with the shuttle program winding down and Constellation trying to ramp up.

In recent weeks the mood of the space community—or at least that subset interested in civil space—could be best described as angst or impatience.

Now, it seems, that job opening is about to be filled. The first hint that a decision was forthcoming came Thursday afternoon, when new presidential science advisor John Holdren testified before the House Science and Technology Committee. “I also have some reason for optimism that the President will be nominating a permanent administrator for NASA very shortly,” Holdren said in response to a question from a member. “The President’s concern has been to get the right person for that job. The fact that we don’t have one until now is not for lack of effort.”

While Holdren said that a nomination would be forthcoming “very shortly”, there was initially cause for skepticism. After all, President Obama himself said that a nomination would come “soon”—in March. Moreover, the shortlist of potential nominees had appeared to dry up, having either been informally rejected by the Senate (which would confirm any nominee) or taking themselves out of consideration.

So it was something of a surprise that by Thursday night a new leading candidate had emerged: Charles Bolden, a retired Marine Corps general and former astronaut. Bolden’s name was not new in the NASA administrator sweepstakes: it first came up in January, and he had a major, influential supporter: Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee (which would host the confirmation hearing for any nominee). Nelson had been playing up Bolden’s unofficial candidacy for months, with Bolden himself keeping a low profile, but the fact that the administration appeared to be pursuing other candidates suggested that they were not seriously considering, or had rejected, Bolden.

Yet by Friday a series of reports, based on anonymous sources within the White House, indicated that Bolden was the leading candidate, and would meet with the president on Monday, with a nomination announcement potentially coming shortly thereafter. At a briefing Friday afternoon White House press secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed that Gibbs would meet with someone on Monday about the job, “and we’ll see how it goes.” Whether that person was Bolden wasn’t clear: a reading of the transcript of the briefing suggests that it is, but different reports based on watching the same briefing came to different conclusions regarding whether Gibbs was confirming the name asked by a reporter, or just completing a train of thought.

The only hangup in the momentum building behind Bolden was, ironically, from Bolden himself. Contacted by Space News on Friday, Bolden claimed not to be in discussions with the White House about the job. “I am hearing the rumors, and as far as I know there is no truth in the rumors,” he told Space News. “You can't say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when you haven’t had a conversation. I haven’t had that conversation and I don’t have one scheduled.”

However, even if a NASA administrator nominee—be it Bolden or someone else—is announced in the next days or weeks, it only solves part of the problem plaguing the civil space community. The other, and arguably larger, concern is what change in direction the new administration will make to NASA. After all, while having a permanent administrator in place will resolve some of the uncertainty about the agency, he or she will be charged with carrying out the administration’s policy, including potentially major changes in Constellation or overall space exploration policy. And there the uncertainty will likely continue for months.

That continued uncertainty is rooted in the decision of the White House earlier this month to constitute an independent committee, formally called the “Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans”, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine. This new Augustine Committee—not to be confused with the one he chaired in 1990 that looked at the overall future of NASA—has three months to recommend any changes in overall policy, or the implementation of that policy, for human spaceflight.

However, even if a NASA administrator nominee—be it Bolden or someone else—is announced in the next days or weeks, it only solves part of the problem plaguing the civil space community.

Few details about the committee’s work have been revealed since its May 7th announcement, or a short press briefing with Augustine the following day. Even the other members of the committee have yet to be announced: Holdren said at the House hearing last week that additional panel members were still being vetted. The committee will eventually have a web site and plans for public meetings, Augustine said in the press briefing, but beyond that few details about their work have been made public.

That lack of information has led to wildly diverging conclusions on what the panel will conclude. For example, Nelson told reporters last Monday that he felt Augustine’s committee would endorse the current Constellation architecture. Meanwhile, others, citing the relatively low priority Augustine’s 1990 committee gave to human spaceflight versus space science, fear that the committee could recommend a radical change that might jeopardize the long-term future of human spaceflight (see “Bob Park gets his wish: ‘It’s time for another Augustine Report’”, The Space Review, May 11, 2009). Such conclusions speak more, perhaps, about what these people believe—or fear—than what is known about the panel and its plans.

As it turns out, the panel fits in well with one recommendation made in a white paper published earlier this year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). One of the recommendations contained in the “Mid- and Long-Term Prospects for Human Spaceflight” report, published in February, called for a “quick and thorough independent review of the Ares I”, including the assessment of alternative architectures, something Augustine said that his committee would consider.

The report’s other recommendations, discussed in a meeting at CSIS’s Washington headquarters on Friday, include maintaining “ambitious” goals, including a human return to the Moon by 2019, with funding to match: an additional $1 billion a year for ten years. The report also called on greater engagement with international partners both in the utilization of the ISS (extending its operations through at least 2020) and in future exploration plans, and $2 billion towards Capability D of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to support the development of commercial options of transporting crews to and from low Earth orbit.

Those recommendations are designed to deal with not one but three gaps in the future of human spaceflight, according to Vincent Sabathier, senior fellow and director for space initiatives at CSIS. Those gaps include the most familiar one, the one between the retirement of the shuttle and the introduction of Constellation, as well as a gap in ISS utilization caused by the limited access to and from the station in the wake of the shuttle’s retirement, and in the realization of existing plans for lunar exploration. “Ares 1 is currently in the critical path of all three gaps,” he said at Friday’s meeting.

Some see the CSIS report as a potential guide for what the administration and/or Augustine’s panel will consider. “I think that the recommendations set forth in the CSIS report are largely consistent with the things our president has talked about,” said Patti Grace Smith, former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA who worked with the Obama campaign last year.

“We have been doing space policy as a consequence of space budgets,” Bingham said. “We’ve done that for too long. Policy needs to drive the budget.”

In the meantime, though, the work by Augustine’s panel will keep NASA’s future plans uncertain, a problem some had hoped that the nomination of a permanent administrator, as well as the release of a more detailed budget proposal, would address. That budget proposal was released this month, but on the same day as the announcement of Augustine’s panel, raising doubts on Capitol Hill about how much weight to give it. “We now have a budget that doesn’t really tell us much for certain about what we plan to do,” said Jeff Bingham, a staffer on the Senate Commerce Committee who deals with space issues.

Bingham believes that one thing the Augustine review will do is highlight one strategic flaw with space policy in recent years. “We have been doing space policy as a consequence of space budgets,” he said. “We’ve done that for too long. Policy needs to drive the budget.”

In the meantime, the uncertainty that has clouded the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program—at least in the eyes of that nebulous space community—will persist likely throughout the summer, even if Bolden or someone else is nominated to be NASA administrator in the coming days. “I learned a very important lesson when I worked on the Senate Commerce Committee,” recalled Smith, “and that’s overnight things can change.” She was referring to the rumors about the impending administrator nomination, but the same lesson might also be applicable to other aspects of national space policy in the next few months.