The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

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The future of NASA’s human spaceflight program may be in the hands of someone who previously argued that space science should take a higher priority than human missions. (credit: NASA)

Bob Park gets his wish: “It’s time for another Augustine Report”

“Never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be.” In the British political satire “Yes Minister”, the purpose of the government inquiry was not to actually find new information, but to advance the government’s agenda. The procedure went something like this. The government establishes an inquiry that from all appearances is independent of the government. The inquiry may even think it’s independent, but has been carefully vetted and controlled to reach a predetermined outcome. The inquiry makes recommendations, several of which are unpopular and controversial. The government is publicly dismayed by the findings, but resolves to do the right thing and carry out the independent recommendations. And so the government acquires the opportunity to carry out its unpopular agenda, while shifting the political fallout from the government to an inquiry which has been disbanded.

Setting up an inquiry that is actually independent, with unpredictable results, is exceptionally risky from the government’s point of view. A truly independent inquiry could completely derail government plans. The government would be better off with no inquiry at all.

“Never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be.”

The Obama Administration has decided to conduct an independent review of human spaceflight at NASA. There is a small possibility that the review is completely independent, and inclined to say anything, including criticisms of the current administration, or full-hearted support of human spaceflight. It is more likely that the administration knows the general direction the review will take. The appointment of Norman Augustine to lead the review makes the outcome even more predictable.

When Vice President Quayle established an independent review of the space program in 1990, he took the naive risk of actually making it independent. The review came back with findings that directly contradicted the Bush Administration’s policies, notably the Space Exploration Initiative. The Augustine Commission put science as the highest priority of NASA, with guaranteed funding. Aeronautics, human spaceflight, and engineering were a distant second:

  1. That the civil space science program should have first priority for NASA resources, and continue to be funded at approximately the same percentage of the NASA budget as at present (about 20 percent).
  2. That, with respect to program content, the existing strategic plan for science and applications research proposed by NASA with input from the science community be funded and executed.
  3. That the multi-decade set of projects known as Mission to Planet Earth be conducted as a continually evolving program rather than as a mission whose design is frozen in time.
  4. That the Mission from Planet Earth be established with the long-term goal of human exploration of Mars, underpinned by an effort to produce significant advances in space transportation and space life sciences.
  5. That the Mission from Planet Earth be configured to an open-ended schedule, tailored to match the availability of funds.

According to Quayle’s memoirs, the Augustine Commission initially put human spaceflight as the lowest priority. But Quayle and others objected and the section was removed. (See “Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part two”, The Space Review, February 23, 2004) Even truly independent reviews are inevitably influenced by the government that created them.

Bob Park, who for decades has waged a one-man campaign to eliminate human spaceflight, was initially skeptical of Augustine, believing that he would support human spaceflight and the administration:

What’s New by Bob Park
Friday, 7 December 1990
It is hard to argue with phasing out the shuttle, but the report, coming as it does from a commission headed by the CEO of Martin Marietta and made up of industry and NASA insiders, may be seen as self-serving. It gobbles the mind.

Park changed his mind after reading the final report.

Friday, 14 December 1990
The Advisory Committee on the Future of the US Space Program confounded the skeptics, including What’s New, by releasing a report that would, if adopted, transform NASA. The panel ranked space science above space stations, aerospace planes, manned missions to Mars, and all the other engineering spectaculars on which NASA has focused… But how could the panel finesse the delicate subject of a manned expedition to Mars—which President Bush personally established as a goal? The panel wisely proposed a “go-as-you-pay” plan, under which the schedule for the mission to Mars would be determined by the availability of funds. Forget it! In Washington, funds do not become available by themselves.

Bob Park has since become Norman Augustine’s number one fan:

Friday, February 13, 2004
13 years ago, he chaired the Advisory Committee on the Future of the US Space Program. The 1990 “Augustine Report” ranked space science above space stations, aerospace planes, and a manned moon/Mars mission called for by George I… The recommendations of the “Augustine Report” should have been followed. We’d be far better off today.

Friday, May 8, 2009
Yesterday the Obama administration announced that an independent panel will take a fresh look at NASA’s human spaceflight program. The panel will be new, but its chairman won’t. Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed, has headed many national committees, including the 1990 report on NASA priorities that called for putting space science above space stations, aerospace planes, manned missions to Mars, and all the other engineering spectaculars on which NASA has focused. The new panel could not do better than to resubmit the 1990 report.

The administration will continue to say, publicly, that it fully supports human spaceflight. It has to. The administration and the party will lose votes, and possibly elections, if it does not.

The 1990 report is the reason why Augustine was invited back by the Obama administration to do a second review. The 1990 report helped to terminate the Space Exploration Initiative. NASA’s Chief Historian, Steven Dick, writes:

Among the recommendations in the Augustine report, released on 17 December, 1990, was that NASA should focus on space and Earth science, while transitioning human exploration to a “go-as-you-pay” strategy. The President ordered NASA to implement these recommendations. Dan Goldin was brought in as the new NASA Administrator, and during his tenure near-term human exploration beyond Earth orbit was abandoned, and the “faster, better, cheaper” strategy was applied to space science robotic exploration. As a result the Clinton Administration’s 1996 National Space Policy officially removed human exploration from the national agenda.

There is a concern that the 2009 report will help cancel or curtail the Vision for Space Exploration. Augustine could have the rare and historic distinction of helping to end two major human spaceflight initiatives. No wonder Bob Park is such a big fan.

The administration will continue to say, publicly, that it fully supports human spaceflight. It has to. The administration and the party will lose votes, and possibly elections, if it does not. It will maintain, publicly, that the review is neutral and not at all biased, that it is fully independent, and that it will be about technical issues, not politics. Privately, the administration is figuring out how to cut human spaceflight without getting blamed for it. It is already projecting a cut of $3.1 billion from Constellation through 2013. The review is a political tool, providing cover to politicians who would otherwise suffer consequences from their angry electorates.

There are already media reports of aerospace workers being anxious or angry at the prospect of losing an entire industry. They have every right to be worried about a review, targeting human spaceflight, headed by someone who once placed human spaceflight as the lowest priority. Their elected representatives should be feeling nervous as well.