The Space Review

 
Augustine committee
The Augustine committee’s summary report got something of a cold receiption on Capitol Hill last week from congressmen who prefer to simply provide more funding for Constellation. (credit: J. Foust)

NASA’s next step: Augustine (and Obama) versus Congress


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The most unexpected thing to emerge from the September 15th House Science and Technology Committee hearing on the Augustine committee study was the lack of any support for the “Obama Plan” from the Democrats. One could argue that there is no such thing as the Obama Plan; but there is a budget plan and this, as far as we know, is driving the policy. Thus, not a single Democrat spoke out in favor of the NASA budget plan as it is currently constituted. They made it clear that they believe that the civil space program is seriously underfunded. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) even went so far as to evoke a landscape where America’s space centers would rust away in a “Mad Max” world.

In spite of the fact that the Augustine committee had to operate in line with its mandate, members of Congress made clear that they felt they had been misled as to the purpose and goals of the panel.

This should have come as no surprise to the administration and to the new leadership at NASA. The massive bipartisan votes in favor of the Constellation plan in 2005 and again in 2008 were no accident. While it may be natural to focus on what happens in the appropriations committees, where the real money comes from, Congress as a whole has shown its strong support for this program. To ignore this is to invite a fight that will not do anyone, particularly the White House, any good.

In spite of the fact that the Augustine committee had to operate in line with its mandate, members of Congress made clear that they felt they had been misled as to the purpose and goals of the panel. While Norman Augustine tried to explain that his team strictly followed administration guidelines, which did not include making recommendations, the members were in no mood to accept his explanations. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), the chairwoman of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, spoke for almost all committee members when she said, “I thought that they would take a hard look at the Constellation program and tell us what should be done to maximize its chances for success.”

There was no serious discussion of any of the alternatives laid out by the Augustine committee’s summary report. Instead the chairman, Bart Gordon (D-TN), set the tone by getting Augustine to acknowledge that they had not found any mismanagement nor any insurmountable technical obstacles to the completion of the current program, referred to as the “Program of Record”. He also made clear that any alternative that did not essentially abandon any hope of human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) for the next two decades would need more funds than are available under the currently planned NASA budget.

The House committee, on a bipartisan and practically unanimous basis, found that since none of the other proposed programs could achieve the goals of the exploration program any cheaper than Constellation they were at a loss to understand why they were even being proposed.

While the technical questions are basically irrelevant to Congress, the budget question is overwhelmingly important. The panel found that in order for Constellation or any other program to work NASA would need an extra $3 billion a year until 2014 and then a commitment to cover any increases in inflation, which they estimate to be 2.4 %. The total needed is a $12-billion increase over the next four years over and above the restrained budget that was contemplated when the committee was formed.

As former administrator Mike Griffin pointed out, NASA’s budget has already been drastically cut. In the 1990s it got 20 percent less than what it would have if it had been level funded at 1993 levels. In spite of the budget cuts the agency has not been allowed to cut much, nor indeed any of its overhead expenses, and has not been given fewer missions. The stress on the organization has now probably reached the breaking point. As Congressman Gordon pointed out, “We either have to give NASA the resources that it needs or stop pretending that it can do all we’ve put on its plate.”

Norm Augustine made clear that he and his team had used “conservative” numbers. They estimated, based on previous experience (and on Augustine’s Law XXXVII, which states, “Ninety percent of the time things will turn out worse than you expect. The other 10 percent of the time you had no right to expect so much.”) that the program would cost a lot more than NASA says it will and that the Orion and Ares 1 combination will face a delay of at least two years. It must be pointed out that this estimate is based on at least as much speculation as are the numbers from the Constellation office. Mike Griffin took strong exception to this. In his statement he explained that “these are low fidelity estimates developed over a matter of a few weeks, yet are offered as corrections to NASA’s cost estimates, which have years of rigorous effort behind them.”

If NASA does not get the support from the White House it needs in order to carry out the mission it has been given then it can no longer pretend to be in the exploration business. The implications of this for the US should be obvious.

Those who hoped that the Augustine committee’s vaguely favorable stance on the use of commercial systems for access to the ISS might translate into political support will be seriously disappointed. While Congress accepted the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program as an auxiliary to Constellation, the idea that the SpaceX and Orbital Sciences launchers and capsules will replace Orion and Ares 1 produced a level of raw hostility that NASA has rarely faced in its recent history. If Constellation is killed then one must expect that COTS in all its manifestations will die along with it. Politically, both projects are now unbreakably soldered together.

At least as far as the committee members go there is no desire to “kick the can down the road”. They seem to feel that there was too much of that during both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. If NASA does not get the support from the White House it needs in order to carry out the mission it has been given then it can no longer pretend to be in the exploration business. The implications of this for the US should be obvious. The country will lose an important aspect of its position of global leadership, it will lose valuable technological capabilities, and it will kill a key motivating factor for its young people.

Members of both parties insisted that they saw this as a national security issue, though they had difficulty articulating exactly why. Speaking for the commission Augustine said that the goal involves “charting a course for the expansion of civilization into the solar system.” There is a direct connection between this goal and national security, though not perhaps in the way some members of Congress intended.

Space exploration is an inherently optimistic endeavor. When people all over the world to look out and see human civilization expanding into the solar system and discovering and developing new resources and new ways of doing things, many of the political and economic motivations for war will diminish. Of course these factors will not entirely disappear, but the sense of panic that induces states to go to war because they lack lebensraum, or its 21st century equivalent, will no longer apply.


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