The Space Review

 
Ares 5 launch
whether Ares 5, or some alternative, is funded and built may depend on space advocates’ ability to properly explain why government human spaceflight is so important. (credit: NASA)

The $3-billion-a-year question


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It’s little surprise that, since the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee (aka the Augustine committee after its chairman, Norm Augustine) released its summary report nearly two weeks ago, that its contents have dominated the debate about the future of NASA’s exploration plans. The options included in the report were in line with what the committee considered during its public hearings, but the report’s language, starting with its initial sentence—“The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory”—made its contents particularly stark. NASA’s current program, with its current budget and its current schedule, just isn’t possible; something would have to change.

“It’s hard for me to understand why the president is seeking new options at all when there’s been an agreed-upon plan for several years,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) in a hearing last week.

The discussion and debate that has since ensued have focused on two primary areas. One is which of the options presented by the committee, if any, should be adopted by the administration: something closely resembling the current program or alternatives that could radically alter the systems that would be developed and/or destinations under consideration. The second is how much more money NASA should receive and the likelihood that the administration would request and Congress would appropriate that funding.

That debate was exemplified by a pair of Congressional hearings last week by the House Science and Technology Committee and the science and space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. The House hearing in particular pushed back against some of the options considered by the Augustine committee. Many House committee members appeared to conclude that if there were no technical showstoppers with Constellation (as the report noted), the best solution was to simply increase NASA’s budget to make the program viable, particularly since the other options that included human exploration beyond low Earth orbit in any form also required additional funding above the administration’s current funding profile.

“It’s hard for me to understand why the president is seeking new options at all when there’s been an agreed-upon plan for several years,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, in comments shared by many members on both side of the aisle during their hearing. “Why don’t we just fund the program we’ve all agreed to?”

The debate over options and funding, though, is missing a bigger, more strategic question. It’s a question that, if answered completely and convincingly, makes it much easier to resolve the issues of the options to pursue and funding needed to accomplish them. It’s a question of childlike simplicity but can be difficult to answer. It can also be summarized in a single word: why? As in, why should the US have a human spaceflight program?

An unconvincing rationale

To many space advocates, and others in the space field, it seems almost intuitive that there should be a human spaceflight program. (There are exceptions, such as advocates of robotic space exploration, but even there the vicious robots-versus-humans spaceflight arguments of past decades have died down.) There’s been one for almost half a century, why shouldn’t there continue to be one? And isn’t the whole point of space exploration to have people in space, exploring? However, despite—or maybe because—of that intuitive belief, it’s difficult for proponents to provide compelling rationales to broader audiences.

To many space advocates, and others in the space field, it seems almost intuitive that there should be a human spaceflight program. However, despite—or maybe because—of that intuitive belief, it’s difficult for proponents to provide compelling rationales to broader audiences.

There is no shortage of reasons put forward in support of human spaceflight program. While not strictly part of their charter, the Augustine committee did address the issue of goals and rationales for human spaceflight in their summary report. They touched upon a wide range of reasons: technological innovation, developing commercial industries, expansion of scientific knowledge, demonstrating leadership, and inspiring youth, as key examples. Others have identified additional reasons for continuing human spaceflight: a Florida Today editorial from a week and a half ago, for example, cited “strengthening national security” as one reason, a claim echoed by some in Congress last week.

On closer examination, though, those reasons lose some, if not all, of their luster. Take the national security argument as one example. The direct relevance of human spaceflight to national security is effectively nonexistent: NASA is a civil, not a military agency, and no one is talking about military human missions any time in the foreseeable future (and if they did, it would be under the Defense Department’s aegis, not NASA.) There is, though, a secondary argument: that by doing human spaceflight the US accrues “soft power” by increasing its stature and enticing other countries to want to work with us.

This argument certainly worked with Apollo, and to some extent with the space station. However, proponents haven’t made the case that human space exploration is the only, or even the best, way to generate soft power in the 21st century. With global concerns about energy, the environment, and other issues, could the US generate soft power more effectively through efforts in those areas than in human space exploration?

It’s also important to remember that human spaceflight isn’t the only space venture that generates international prestige “People should not underestimate how much positive relationships, friendship, respect for the United States, from being open and trying to encompass and include other people” in space exploration, said JPL director Charles Elachi during the opening session of the AIAA Space 2009 conference in Pasadena last week. Elachi, though, was primarily referring to cooperation on robotic spaceflight, citing as one example the dramatic swing in public opinion in Pakistan towards the US that one congressman experienced because of the Phoenix Mars Lander mission last year.

Augustine listed the various rationales for human spaceflight, from science and exploration to inspiration and spinoffs. “In our judgment, none of those, by themselves, can justify the cost of human spaceflight today.”

The same scrutiny can be applied to other arguments. Most would agree that humans are far more capable scientists and explorers than robots, but they’re also far more expensive, and it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the science performed on the space station, the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere in the solar system. Earlier this month NASA issued a report on the science performed on the ISS, identifying over 100 experiments performed on the station from 2000 to 2008. It’s an impressive list, but to perform that work requires funding a Space Operations line in the NASA budget (ISS, shuttle, and related operations) that will cost the agency $6.175 billion in fiscal year 2010. By comparison, the entire NSF budget request for FY2010 is just over $7 billion. What is the better scientific value?

In his House testimony, Augustine alluded to that lack of compelling reasons for human spaceflight. “Too often in the past we’ve said what destination do we want to go to rather than why do we want to go there. It’s a question that in our view we have probably not answered correctly in the past,” he said. He listed the various rationales for it, from science and exploration to inspiration and spinoffs. “In our judgment, none of those, by themselves, can justify the cost of human spaceflight today.”

Given that problem, it’s not surprising that space advocates often fall back on a secondary approach: human spaceflight isn’t, relatively speaking, that expensive. During the House testimony several members wondered, given the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on bank bailouts or the stimulus package, why NASA can’t get just $3 billion to help put its human spaceflight efforts back on track. (Never mind that it’s $3 billion a year, ad infinitum and with later adjustments for inflation, that the agency needs.) Others note that NASA gets a narrow wedge of the budget pie: just over half a percent of the overall planned FY2010 budget, whereas it got several percent of the federal budget in the glory days of Apollo.

This argument ignores the fact the government is an extraordinary spendthrift now because of the extreme situation it has faced: stopping a potential collapse of the banking system and trying to revive the economy from the worst downturn since the Great Depression. With soaring deficits (in excess of $1 trillion for FY2009 alone) there will be increasing pressure to cap spending. Moreover, in any budget environment justifying an agency’s budget based on its share of the federal budget is unwise: not only are you vulnerable to changes in the overall budget (which explains why NASA’s share has slipped roughly a tenth of a point over past years, even though the administration has proposed an increase for the agency) but it begins to sound like an entitlement that the agency should get regardless of what it’s doing.

All of which leads to perhaps the real reason why we continue to do civil human spaceflight: because we have for nearly 50 years, starting with that incredible surge in the 1960s when we raced the Soviet Union to the Moon and won. If we were to stop doing it, the reasoning goes, we would look weak and lose prestige, regardless of what else we decided to do in space or elsewhere instead of human spaceflight. It’s not an exciting argument to starry-eyed space enthusiasts who dream of going to the Moon and beyond, but it does explain a great many things.

Seeking a different approach

But even that rationale might not hold up over the long term as the Apollo-era inertia starts to die out. “When Griffin said that ESAS was ‘Apollo on Steroids’, I knew right then it was dead,” said Dan Rasky, a senior scientist at NASA Ames who served on then-administrator Mike Griffin’s Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) in 2005, during a presentation at AIAA Space 2009. Rasky was referring to Griffin’s infamous explanation of the ESAS architecture when it was unveiled four years ago this month.

Perhaps the real reason why we continue to do civil human spaceflight is because we have for nearly 50 years, starting with that incredible surge in the 1960s when we raced the Soviet Union to the Moon and won.

What might be a better alternative? Buried in the Augustine committee’s summary report is a core reason for undertaking human spaceflight: “The Committee concluded that the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.” Griffin, while disagreeing with other aspects of the Augustine report, endorsed that goal in his House testimony. Griffin himself has spoken in the past of the “acceptable” reasons for space exploration—economic, scientific, and national security, reasons that pass muster in policy discussions—versus the “real” reasons: the intangible desire to explore, do things never done before, and build monuments for future generations.

Is that a compelling enough reason for the general public? Perhaps if there’s a twist added to it: that the goal of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts is to enable humanity to make use of the solar system. That ultimately means human expansion into the solar system, a goal of most space advocates, but doesn’t have quite the same sci-fi tone that can be off-putting to some. It would involve backing the development an infrastructure that enables NASA to embark on exploration missions to the Moon and other destinations, but one that can also be used for commercial and other applications. There are plenty of compelling reasons for humans to go into space, from commercial research to tourism, that fall outside the mission of a civil space agency; these applications can benefit from government investment into necessary infrastructure, while the nation and the world in turn can benefit from these applications.

In his AIAA Space 2009 presentation, Rasky advocated an infrastructure-based approach to space exploration. NASA, he said, has been operating on a “mission-based” paradigm since Apollo, one that requires taking the resources needed and leaves little behind for future missions. “If we want a sustainable exploration program, I think we really need to look more towards opening new frontiers,” in such a manner that creates infrastructure that can be leveraged by others, including commercial users, like the way the American West was developed—or, more recently, the Internet.

“In addition to doing valuable things for themselves,” Rasky added, “this brings the benefits of the frontier back to the people in the ‘homeland’, the people who haven’t gone. They start seeing the benefits flowing back from the people who are going to space, so that provides proof of the value of this new terrain. That maintains the advocacy for the exploration.”

Too late or just in time?

If space advocates can make an approach like that compelling to the public, as well as the administration and Congress—that is, give it the right mix of “real” and “acceptable” reasons, to use Griffin’s terminology—is it possible to affect real change for NASA’s human spaceflight program? In the near term, it may be too late: the administration is likely to pick a direction in the next several weeks, after reviewing the full Augustine report, and seek Congressional approval for it for FY2010.

“If we want a sustainable exploration program, I think we really need to look more towards opening new frontiers,” in such a manner that creates infrastructure that can be leveraged by others, including commercial users, Rasky said.

Given the administration’s other, more pressing issues, like health care, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to put much political capital towards this topic. And while members of Congress pushed for increased NASA funding in last week’s hearings, they are primarily authorizers, not appropriators; the latter, with real control over the purse strings in Congress, have been relatively silent on the issue since the Augustine report came out. The result might be something that looks like the status quo with some tweaks and possibly a modicum of additional funding, but likely far short of comprehensive change.

While that outcome would likely be unsatisfying to space advocates, it could help them buy time to develop a more compelling argument for human spaceflight, one that goes beyond spinoffs and soft power to ways that get the public behind that ultimate goal of getting humanity into, and making use of, the solar system. From that, the plans and the necessary funding can start to fall into place—not without a lot of hard work on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, but at least on a better foundation.

The new NASA leadership appears to be laying the groundwork for major changes to the agency’s mission. “I know there are those who are skeptical that NASA can change in such a substantial way that we may be called upon to do,” deputy administrator Lori Garver said in a luncheon speech at AIAA Space 2009 on September 16. The agency, though, had changed significantly in the past, she noted, pointing to such things as bringing Russia into the space station program as examples.

That change has some space advocates worried, since many of the examples she gave in her speech of interesting programs were outside of human spaceflight, such as an effort to develop aviation biofuels from algae and better tools to bring together and visualize Earth sciences data. However, there was a core message in her speech that provided an opportunity for human spaceflight advocates.

“To earn our trust from the taxpayers, we have to help create a better future, in my view, with programs that are aligned with both the short-term and the long-term national interests,” she said, “and then we have to better explain how we help those national interests with what we do and the value that we add with our missions.”

If NASA’s human spaceflight program is to survive, and thrive, its supporters would do well to take that message to heart: to better explain to the public, the White House, and Congress how it is aligned with national interests and provides “better value” (another phrase from her speech). To do so may require a shift from the tired old reasons of the past to new ones that put the space agency at the heart of a new mission to open up human spaceflight to a wider range of applications and a greater degree of relevance and importance to all.


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