The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert believes that the OSP program should be slowed down until a clearer vision of the future US space program appears. (credit: J. Foust)

Vision revision

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Vision and OSP

The forum also looked at some of the major near-term issues and how they fit into an overall vision, most notably the Orbital Space Plane (OSP). Boehlert used the forum, as well as a Space Transportation Association breakfast held just down the street two days later, to argue against the current fast-track approach to the OSP.

“We shouldn’t be committing to any new projects in human space flight until we have a better sense of what we’re trying to accomplish, of how long the shuttle and station will be in use, and of how much we’re willing to spend over the long haul,” he said at the forum. He and Rep. Ralph Hall (D-TX), the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, tried last month to put the brakes on the OSP. “Mr. Hall and I have called on NASA not to move ahead yet with a request for proposals [RFP] for the Orbital Space Plane. We’re not, by the way, calling for a complete halt to the program, but we don’t want to start taking steps that seem irrevocable.”

Boehlert and Hall did make a bid last month to put language into NASA’s 2004 budget to block funding for the OSP, but House and Senate conferees working to smooth out differences between their versions of the budget rejected the measure. However, NASA did not release the OSP RFP as expected last week: reported that NASA needed additional time to incorporate recommendations made by an outside consulting company. NASA now plans to release the RFP no earlier than December 1.

“We shouldn’t be committing to any new projects in human space flight until we have a better sense of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Boehlert said of the OSP.

Other forum speakers, though, expressed their support for the OSP. “We believe that it’s important to build the Orbital Space Plane on its current schedule,” said the NSS’s Chase. “There are a lot of technical and budgetary challenges that face the program, but we believe it is an important stopgap measure so we can have some breathing room between the shuttle and a next-generation system. It can also serve as a building block for future exploration.”

“There has been some talk here in Congress about trying to slow NASA down, and have Sean [O’Keefe] go back and try to invent the perfect space vehicle,” said Douglass. “We are past the point, in my opinion, where we can go back and try to have the perfect system. We have to keep the manned spaceflight program alive, we’ve got to keep moving forward.”

The status quo vision

At the end of the three-hour event, the forum’s panelists had expressed a wide range of opinions about the type of vision the US should develop for its space program. However, as noted above, there are a number of areas of disagreement, at varying levels of detail, about what that vision should be. There was little evidence that opinions had been formed or changed from the event. This raises the possibility that the only vision that could gain the level of support needed is, essentially, no vision at all.

By one account, this appears to be the direction the Bush Administration is moving. An article in Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel, citing internal NASA documents and interviews with people familiar with the ongoing space policy review, concluded that the administration will not adopt a bold new direction for NASA, such as a return to the Moon or human missions to Mars. Instead, any new policy will focus on existing programs: the shuttle, station, and OSP. In the words of the Sentinel article, administration officials “appear to be developing plans committed to the status quo, with no major new programs or specific destinations, no timetables and most importantly, no significant spending increases.”

The Sentinel included what it called a “Prospective POTUS [President of the United States] Vision Statement” from one NASA document submitted to the White House:

A house with no foundation falls, and a journey without a plan traps us in the wilderness. To move America and the world boldly into our greatest frontier we must build the foundations of mind, technology and experience. Without them, our journey into space would be only a visit. With them, we can stay. Our children will lead us, and their adventure will have no end.

Needless to say, this statement is so vague as to be meaningless. The article goes on to note that the administration is not only not considering any significant increase to NASA’s $15 billion budget, it may even cut funding from some agency programs to cover the costs of the shuttle return-to-flight program.

The Bush Administration, the Sentinel reported, “appear[s] to be developing plans committed to the status quo, with no major new programs or specific destinations.”

This raises the question of whether any space vision is needed for the country. Randall Clague, responding to our “The vision thing” article, commented that the reason why it was so hard to develop a new vision was because there shouldn’t be such a single vision. “The fact that the various constituencies, including the general public, can’t decide on a single vision, is a signal that there are a number of different visions out there to be served,” he wrote. “Sounds to me like a problem looking for a free-market solution.”

However, NASA and the Administration will continue to get advice, solicited or not, about what the vision for the space program should be. Tim Huddleston, executive director of the ASA, said his organization has been working on its own concept of a national space vision, which is plans to release by the end of the year. “We’re not just going to slide this under somebody’s door,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and sell this thing. We’re going to go around the country and sell a national vision. We are going to do our part.”

Thrash recounted how he was outside with his family one night, and his two-year-old daughter reached her hands high above her head and then put them behind her back. “I reach Moon, I reach Mars, put in pocket,” he recounted her saying why she did that. “All we need to do right now is figure out how we get her there.”