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Ares 1
Whether the future of NASA’s human spaceflight plans will look something like the Ares 1 (above) or some other, possibly commercial, concept is at the heart of the ongoing debate about the agency’s plans on Capitol Hill. (credit: NASA)

Debating the future of human spaceflight

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After a summer break that was long by even Capitol Hill standards, Congress returns to work this week. And among the myriad of issues awaiting them is the future direction of NASA, in the form of a NASA authorization bill. The Senate passed its version of a NASA authorization bill, S.3729, shortly before going on break in early August. The House, though, failed to bring its version, HR 5781, to the floor before recess, after some members reportedly opposed elements of the bill that severely cut funding for technology development and commercial crew programs.

What was notable about the push against the House bill was that there was little evidence of similar advocacy in favor of the bill.

Last week, in the ramp-up to Congress’s return, there was a strong lobbying push by some elements of the space advocacy community to block the House bill from consideration. Several organizations, including the National Space Society, Space Studies Institute, Space Access Society, and Space Frontier Foundation, issued statements in opposition to HR 5781 and called upon people to contact Congress and seek to block the bill from consideration by the full House. Their concerns were again on the lack of funding for technology development and commercial crew in the House bill, as well as funding for what they perceived as a continuation of the Constellation program, as the bill calls for the development of a crew launch vehicle at least similar to the Ares 1.

One of the slickest examples of such advocacy was a web site that appeared last week called “Reform Space Now”. “Don’t let pork ruin NASA,” it states, referring to the bill’s support (“bailout”, in its language) for an Ares 1-like vehicle. “Tell Congress to save NASA’s future and vote ‘no’ on HR 5781.” What was curious about the site was despite the high production values of the site—including a professionally-narrated 60-second video—there was no evidence of the companies or organizations that supported it: even the site’s domain name was privately registered.

What was notable about the push was that there was little evidence of similar advocacy in favor of the bill. Part of that is due to the tactics involved: opponents of the bill made that push last week in hopes of keeping the bill off the calendar of legislation the House plans to take up over the next several weeks, before it recesses again in advance of the November elections. (At press time, it wasn’t clear if that effort was successful.) Companies that might benefit from the House bill, or other space-related organizations that would be inclined to support it, held their fire.

The closest thing to advocacy for the House bill came last Thursday in a Capitol Hill roundtable organized by the Space Transportation Association. At the event former NASA administrator Mike Griffin spoke out about the current debate on NASA’s future direction, and endorsed an approach more like that in the House bill than the Senate’s version, which has more money for commercial crew and technology development efforts, and moves ahead directly to the development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle.

“We’re no longer facing a future in which the administration’s proposal is one of the possible outcomes,” he said, referring to the NASA budget proposal released in February that called for the cancellation of Constellation and a greater emphasis on technology and commercial crew development. “The Senate has passed an authorization bill that takes a more mature approach to human space exploration, and the House Science and Technology Committee has issued a draft bill that is even better.”

Griffin’s preferred approach would be to merge elements of both the House and Senate bills. For example, he said it was “crucial” to include the provisions in the House bill for the development of a government human space transportation system. “A crew launch capability which is not dependent on commercial interests or the state of international partner relationships is a strategic national asset and should not be sacrificed for lesser interests,” he said. He also endorsed the safety standards laid out in the House version: “The cost of any lesser safety standard is simply too high.”

“The numbers in the House bill for developing government capabilities are higher than those in the Senate, thus, I believe it has a better chance for programmatic success,” Pace said.

From the Senate bill Griffin supported the language calling for the development of a heavy-lift vehicle, but with caveats about the vehicle’s performance similar to what he expressed in a speech last month (see “Griffin’s critique of NASA’s new direction”, The Space Review, August 9, 2010). He called Senate language that called initially for development of a vehicle capable of lifting 70–100 tons, with later evolution to heavier capacities, “technically unwise” and one that would lead to a “suboptimal design.” (Later, he called that lower limit “a non-credible number known to all knowledgeable people in the space profession.”) He noted that with the long lifetimes of many aerospace systems, it was important to design such a vehicle right in the first place. “We’ll be using whatever heavy lifter we develop for the next fifty years,” he said. “If we don’t have the time and money to do it right the first time, when are we going to find the time and money to do it over again?”

“A NASA authorization act that captures the best of both bills will take us beyond the present muddled state to what we all hope will be a clear statement of national space policy and bipartisan agreement,” Griffin concluded.

Griffin’s comments were supported by another panelist at the event, Scott Pace, the current director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and formerly head of NASA’s Program Analysis and Evaluation office during Griffin’s tenure as administrator. “Whatever the benefits of promoting new technologies and new launch providers are—and those merits are considerable—the loss of a known path forward with a replacement for the Shuttle and heavy lift capabilities for serious human missions beyond low Earth orbit was not an approach that one could expect members [of Congress] to vote for,” he said in explanation of why Congress failed to support the administration’s proposals for NASA.

While Pace said that both the House and Senate authorization bills are better than the administration’s proposal, he clearly leaned in favor of the House bill. “The numbers in the House bill for developing government capabilities are higher than those in the Senate, thus, I believe it has a better chance for programmatic success,” he said. “The Senate bill has more funds for commercial crew and technology than the House, risking funds being spread perhaps too thin and schedules being slipped.” His recommendation was to use the Senate bill as the basis of a final version, since it had already been approved by the full Senate, “but to use the funding numbers that are in the House bill to ensure the best chance of success.”

“It is regrettable, absolutely, that Congress has to be the design bureau of last resort, but sometimes it’s necessary,” saif Griffin.

One criticism of the legislation, beyond the decisions on funding levels for various programs, is the level of technical specificity in some of its provisions. The report accompanying the Senate version, for example, all but dictates the design of the heavy lift vehicle called for in the bill: “an ‘in-line’ vehicle design, with a large center tank structure with attached multiple liquid propulsion engines and, at a minimum, two solid rocket motors composed of at least four segments being attached to the tank structure to form the core, initial stage of the propulsion vehicle.” That has concerned some both within and outside NASA who worry that this unwisely constrains the design space for such a system and rules out alternatives, such as concepts derived from EELVs or even shuttle-derived sidemount proposals.

Leaving those decisions up to NASA “would normally be the right way to do it,” Griffin said in response to a question on the topic, “except that we now have evidence on the table that, left to itself, the administration will choose, deliberately, suboptimal approaches.” In that case, he argued, it’s up to Congress to step up in its oversight role and provide the proper direction. “It is regrettable, absolutely, that Congress has to be the design bureau of last resort, but sometimes it’s necessary.”

Meanwhile, there are efforts in Congress to try and reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills. At a separate space policy forum in Washington on Friday, organized by the University of Nebraska College of Law, Jeff Bingham, a staffer on the Senate Commerce Committee, said there was “preconferencing” underway to try and smooth out the differences between the two bills before the House votes on a bill, but couldn’t discuss the details about the negotiations. Such negotiations might be critical to the eventual passage of any authorization bill, as some fear that if the House passes its own version, there may not be the time or ability to go through a formal conference committee process to work out differences between the final House and Senate versions, even if Congress returns for a “lame duck” session after the November elections.

Bingham said that the Senate’s version, which passed by unanimous consent, was itself crafted as a compromise to deal with differing opinions among senators about NASA’s future direction. “What you end up with, inevitably, is a bill that no one really loves, but that everybody likes and can accept,” he said.

One lament at Thursday’s roundtable was that NASA was not sufficiently funded to carry out its exploration and other programs. “NASA has, and continues to be, underfunded by several billion a year,” said Gary Payton, who recently retired as the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space. “We do not expect NASA to undertake the science, aeronautics, and exploration mission that it has with the budget that it has had and continues to have.” That “lack of adequate resources”, he said, is the reason for the looming post-shuttle gap in human spaceflight.

“Everybody assumes that there’s just no more money for NASA,” Bingham said. “If the need is there, and there is crystal clear policy guidance for it, the money can be found.”

While there has been heated debate about the future direction of NASA, there’s been little debate about the agency’s overall funding: the $19 billion offered by the administration in its fiscal year 2011 has been accepted almost without debate by Congress, even as they reapportion how that money would be spent on various agency programs. In a speech at the recent AIAA Space 2010 conference in California, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver saw that as a positive aspect of the debate: “I don’t believe I heard a speech about cutting the $19 billion” overall NASA budget proposal, she noted.

On the other hand, there have been few concrete proposals to increase NASA’s budget beyond the projections in the administration’s request, forcing people to try and squeeze what they can into that $19 billion. Bingham described this on Friday as a “nagging concern”: the budget driving policy, rather than the other way around. “Everybody assumes that there’s just no more money for NASA,” he said. That doesn’t have to be case, he argued, noting that money was found for other programs, like the stimulus bill, deemed to be a priority. “If the need is there, and there is crystal clear policy guidance for it, the money can be found.”

That guidance, though, appears to be lacking now, and past experience shows how difficult it is to have settled policy over the long term that can be convincing enough to win sufficient funding. It appeared that the passage of NASA authorization bills in 2005 and 2008 that supported the Vision for Space Exploration “settled the question of what it is that this nation should do and will do in the arena of human spaceflight,” Griffin said. Clearly they did not, as the ongoing debate amply demonstrates. With the fiscal environment likely to be far more constrictive in the next several years, as Congress seeks to reduce massive budget deficits, it will not be getting any easier for space advocates to lay out rationales for human spaceflight convincing enough to be fully funded.