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Jeff Greason talks about the work of the Augustine committee at the Space Investment Summit 7 in Boston on September 30. (credit: J. Foust)

A committee member speaks

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While many might think that the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee (better, and more simply, known as the Augustine committee after chairman Norm Augustine) completed their work with the release of their summary report nearly a month ago, they’re not done yet. Still due from the committee is its final full report, which was originally planned for the end of September but now expected in the middle of October. To that end, NASA announced late Friday that the committee would hold an additional one-hour meeting, by teleconference, this Thursday to discuss the “finalization of scoring of options” presented in the summary report.

“Because we were tasked with coming up with options, we could say, when it was a political issue and not a technical issue, ‘that’s not our call.’”

While their work is not yet complete, it’s close enough to done that individual committee members are now speaking about their work and providing their own opinions about the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans. A case in point is Wednesday’s speech at the Space Investment Summit 7 in Boston by committee member Jeff Greason, cofounder and president of XCOR Aerospace. While that would seem to be a natural forum to talk about his company and its suborbital vehicle development effort, he instead discussed his participation on the Augustine committee and the insights he took away from its work.

“Everybody worked like dogs”

Greason said NASA’s George Whitesides (the current chief of staff to administrator Charles Bolden) approached him to be on the committee. “Part of the reason I wanted to do it is, like many people, I’ve been a fan of NASA and America’s achievements in space my whole life,” he said. “I wouldn’t be a space entrepreneur if I hadn’t been fed up with NASA’s lack of progress. The temptation to go into the belly of the beast and look at it from the other side was very interesting.”

Initially he was concerned about the time commitment, but was assured by Whitesides that “it won’t be more than a quarter-time” job. Instead, he found himself working 90-hour weeks to support the committee. “Right from the beginning of the program I learned about the value of NASA budget estimates,” he joked.

That lever of effort was shared by the other members of committee, who Greason lauded in his talk. “I can’t say enough good things about the other members of the panel,” he said. “Everybody worked like dogs,” traveling around the country and working together late into the night and starting again early the next morning on a regular basis. “Norm Augustine, who’s done a few of these things, said that he’s never seen a panel work as hard.”

One other thing that set this committee’s work apart was the scope of its task. Previously blue-ribbon committees “tended to ask very narrow, focused questions”, Greason said, while this committee was asked to provide options for human explorations. “It was critically important to our charter that it be options,” he said, allowing them to sidestep political issues. “Because we were tasked with coming up with options, we could say, when it was a political issue and not a technical issue, ‘that’s not our call.’ If there are two good technical answers let’s put them both up and let the national policymakers make up their minds which ones they want.”

Fixed costs and unaffordable plans

The key problem with the current “program of record”, as the committee called the Constellation program, is that it was based on a budget that was considerably higher than what the White House has requested and Congress has appropriated to date. “Talking about NASA’s budget cuts sometimes misses the point because they never had that money to start with, they just thought they would.” Greason said.

If we went director to Mars “we’d be sorry,” Greason concluded. “We’d be Apollo all over again: we’d get there, we’d go a few times, and then we would stop doing it.”

This was graphically illustrated in a chart that showed the decreasing spending plans over time, one that Greason said actually made the situation look better than it actually is. That’s because much of the current spending goes to fixed costs that must be accounted for but are difficult for the agency to keep track of. “NASA is an organization that is dominated by fixed costs. In business terms everything is in the overhead,” he said. The committee found, with some effort, that the fixed cost of NASA’s human spaceflight program is $6–7 billion a year. “The bottom line is that they can’t afford to keep the doors open with they money they’ve got, let alone do anything with it.”

He added that, in his own opinion, it was “a fiction” to project budgets decades into the future, given the uncertainties about the economy, policy changes, and the like. Any program that relies on a high budget continuously over many years is vulnerable to such changes, making it in his opinion a “very fragile program” that’s unlikely to survive over the long haul.

“The number one carryaway lesson from the Apollo program that nobody ever seems to realize is: what’s the most important fact about the Saturn 5? We don’t have it any more,” he said. “Do you know why? We canceled it because we couldn’t afford it.”

Those budget concerns also shaped the committee’s thoughts about where the program should go. While they agreed that Mars was the ideal, ultimate destination for NASA’s human exploration efforts, they felt it was premature to go directly to the Red Planet. “We’re not ready technically,” Greason said, saying that the cost of doing human Mars missions with current technologies is “unforeseeably large”. “This is not opening the frontier, this is not expanding human civilization,” he said. “This is not even Apollo on steroids. This is Apollo from the giant insect movies.”

“If we did it we’d be sorry,” he concluded. “We’d be Apollo all over again: we’d get there, we’d go a few times, and then we would stop doing it.”

Benefits of the flexible path

If Mars is out the picture in the foreseeable future, where should NASA be looking to go first beyond low Earth orbit? Many options come to mind: the Moon, near Earth objects (NEOs), the moons of Mars, and Lagrange points. First, though, Greason said it made sense to keep the International Space Station operating beyond the notional shutdown date of 2016, in order to do technology maturation, provide a destination to support commercial services, and to practice international cooperation.

In order to build up experience for eventual missions to Mars, NASA needs to build up experience in a number of areas. Some of them, like developing landers and learning how to do long-term operations on a planetary surface, call for a return to the Moon. Others, such as building up experience with longer missions away from the Earth, better fit missions to NEOs or other destinations beyond cislunar space. “What became obvious as we thought about it is, it’s a false choice,” he said. “You’re going to do all of these things before you go to Mars.”

The question that’s left then is the sequence of the missions: going back to the Moon first or going to other destinations before a return to the lunar surface. “From a technical perspective, they both work, and options for both appear in the final report,” he said. “However, if you anticipate a world of budgetary constraint, there is a more obvious choice.”

In-space propellant transfer “is such a fundamental technology it’s somewhat shocking that we don’t have it,” he said.

That more obvious choice—the so-called “flexible path” option that defers the return to the lunar surface in favor of other destinations—comes from the phasing of the costs of the program. Returning to the Moon first requires developing landers and surface systems at the same time as core elements like the capsule and booster. The flexible path option, though, defers the costs of the landers and surface systems: it does have some up-front costs for maneuvering stages and airlock modules, but those are much smaller than the costs of developing the lander and surface systems.

“Unless you anticipate living in an Apollo-like era again, where NASA gets this huge infusion of funding that only lasts for a short time,” he concluded, “one of [the options] seems to lend themselves better to a budget-constrained environment than the other one.”

Launch vehicles and propellant depots

Much of the discussion during the Augustine committee’s deliberations this summer and in the weeks since the release of the committee’s summary report has focused on launch vehicles, in particular the future of the Ares 1 (see “Is Ares 1 too little, too late?”, The Space Review, this issue) as well as options for heavy lift in place of the planned Ares 5. The report included a variety of options, from continuing the current Constellation architecture to EELV- and shuttle-derived alternatives. “The launch vehicle picture is very contentious, very complicated, and we as a committee did not reach any consensus on that, and so we floated them all up to the policymakers,” Greason said.

Greason did note that launch, like other assets, gets cheaper on a per-unit basis the more of them you buy. A heavy-lift vehicle, he said, would be a “NASA-unique” vehicle that would launch only a few times. “If you think that all of that NASA fixed cost is a virtue, because it supports infrastructure, jobs, companies, that are important to you,” he said, “then that’s a very good choice, because that justifies, and can only be maintained and operated with, the continuance and maintenance of all that infrastructure.”

However, he said, if you’re trying to minimize costs, it makes more sense to use a smaller launch vehicle that flies more frequently and has other users and applications. The key to making that work for exploration architectures that require large amounts of propellant—and hence have driven the planning for heavy-lift vehicles like the Ares 5—is the use of propellant depots and in-space propellant transfer. “If you use in-space propellant transfer, it’s no longer true that you have to have a really big piece,” he said.

Greason said a “highlight” of his time on the committee was its work on that topic. “This is such a fundamental technology it’s somewhat shocking that we don’t have it,” he said. However, the key technologies are ready to be flight-tested, if someone would take to lead to fly them. “There was surprise in how close to ready-to-go this is.”

He said that while he had his own opinions on the right selection of launch vehicles, he didn’t have any insights on what direction the White House and Congress would go. “It’s really up to policymakers whether we have a space program or a jobs program.”

Time to come out of the closet

A deeper issue that the choice of destinations or technologies is the reason why the US should have a human spaceflight program (see “The $3-billion-a-year question”, The Space Review, September 21, 2009). “As Norm likes to say, you need to talk about your goals in space, and the destinations are a consequence of that, but far too often they get turned the other way around,” Greason said.

“We are opening a new frontier for humanity, we are creating new places and making them accessible for us. This is what the future is about.”

Greason addressed—and rejected—some of the common justifications for human spaceflight, ranging from science to international cooperation to technology spinoffs. Humans can be far more effective in scientific work than robots, he noted as one example, “but that doesn’t mean you can justify the space program based on the science that it does” since other fields of research can give you “more science than the buck”.

“The trap with all of these justifications is that it’s not enough to say that if we spend money on space then we get these benefits,” he said. “If you’re justifying spending money on space because of this benefit or that benefit, you have to look not at the alternative of not doing it, you have to look at the opportunity cost: what else could you have spent that money on, and could you have gotten benefits out of that, too.”

All these things are benefits that you get as part of having a human spaceflight program, but what, then, is the key justification for it? “I knew that the reason why we go to space is because we’re going to live there someday,” he said. “We are opening a new frontier for humanity, we are creating new places and making them accessible for us. This is what the future is about.”

Greason said he was “stunned” that the rest of the committee agreed with him. “I never imagined that nine other people who are aerospace greybeards not only knew that but were willing to say that.”

And then, in a line that generated an impromptu round of applause from the Boston audience: “It’s time for the real justification for human spaceflight to come out of the closet.”