The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

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Congress, with the passage of a NASA authorization bill last week, has signed off on a different direction for NASA; will it ultimately be more sustainable and successful? (credit: J. Foust)

Milestones and transitions

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If the Space Age has a birthday, then today would be it. Fifty-three years ago today—October 4, 1957—an R-7 rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan and placed the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. That launch also triggered a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, a frenzied, hyperkinetic period of firsts that culminated nearly 12 years later with the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.

Since then, it seems, space advocates have been attempting to recapture the magic of that era, with little success. The latest effort has been the Vision for Space Exploration, the program announced by President George W. Bush in January 2004 to return humans to the Moon by 2020 as a prelude for human missions to Mars and beyond. Last week, though, the Vision died quietly on Capitol Hill with the passage of a NASA authorization bill that charts yet another new direction for the space agency. Another effort to harness the energy and enthusiasm—and funding—first tapped 53 years ago had failed.

The Vision fades to black

To be certain, the Vision’s prospects had not looked good for at least a year, when the Augustine Committee concluded that the so-called “program of record”—the Constellation program, NASA’s effort to implement the Vision—could not be executed on effectively any timescale, let alone the schedule laid out by President Bush in 2004, on its current budget. Constellation, and the goal of returning to the Moon by 2020 (something that Barack Obama had endorsed as a candidate for president in 2008) were effectively sentenced to death by the administration in its fiscal year 2011 budget request in February, replaced by an approach that followed most closely the Augustine Committee’s “Flexible Path” option that eschews an immediate return to the Moon in favor of human missions to near Earth asteroids and Lagrange points.

Last week, though, the Vision died quietly on Capitol Hill. Another effort to harness the energy and enthusiasm—and funding—first tapped 53 years ago had failed.

It wasn’t enough, though, for the President to simply proclaim that the Vision was dead. The Vision was quite literally the law of the land, enshrined in NASA authorization bills passed by Congress in 2005 and again in 2008. If the administration really wanted to replace the Vision for Space Exploration with its own vision for human spaceflight beyond LEO, it would have to win over members of Congress who were skeptical at best—and openly hostile at worst—to the new approach, in part because of the fumbled, low-key rollout of the new plan. What followed was months of debate in Congressional hearings about the merits (or lack thereof) of the administration’s proposal versus the status quo.

The most likely way for Congress to endorse or reject the administration’s plans would be through another authorization bill. Such bills, to the layperson, can be a bit obscure. While they authorize the expenditure of funds for various programs, they don’t provide the funding themselves; that comes from separate appropriations bills, with no guarantee that appropriators will provide the same level of funding that authorizers had approved. More importantly, though, such bills set policy and provide direction—often very specific direction—to agencies like NASA.

For the last two months, the House and Senate had, in effect, been playing a game of chicken about NASA. In early August the Senate passed its version of a NASA authorization bill by unanimous consent (a process that allows for the expedited passage of non-controversial bills, provided no senator objects.) The bill supported many elements of the administration’s plan, including commercial crew development and exploration technology programs, although at lower funding levels than in the original White house budget proposal. A key difference was regarding development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV): while the White House proposed deferring a decision on an HLV until as late as 2015, the Senate called for immediate development of a HLV using shuttle-derived approach.

The Senate version, though, stood in sharp contrast to what the House Science and Technology Committee had approved a couple weeks earlier. That bill could be best described as Constellation’s last stand: it called for the development of a launch system that could initially be used to launch crews, then extended to an HLV, much like the Ares 1/Ares 5 approach. The House bill provided little funding for commercial crew development and virtually nothing for exploration technology (although fully funding more generic space technology work).

Ordinarily, the full House would have taken up and passed its version of the bill, leaving it up to a House-Senate conference committee to iron out differences between the two bills. However, with the limited time remaining in the current Congress, plus a full plate of other legislative priorities still left to do, insiders warned that there would be no time for that conventional approach. Instead, there were efforts to “preconference”: come up with a compromise version of the bill that the House could approve and still win support in the Senate. Those efforts failed, though, as did the release on September 23 of a “compromise” version of the bill by the House Science and Technology Committee that was much closer, but not identical, to the Senate bill.

Last Monday, the House effectively threw in the towel, with House Science and Technology Committee chairman Bart Gordon announcing that the full House would vote on the Senate’s bill, rather than either the original or compromise House bill. “It has become clear that there is not time remaining to pass a compromise bill through the House and the Senate,” Gordon said in a statement. “For the sake of providing certainty, stability, and clarity to the NASA workforce and larger space community, I felt it was better to consider a flawed bill than no bill at all as the new fiscal year begins.”

“I see no realistic choice but to take the Senate bill because doing so would be preferable than taking no action at all,” said Rep. Ralph Hall.

The full House took up this “flawed” bill Wednesday night under a procedure known as “suspension of the rules” that limits debate and prohibits amendments, ensuring that if the bill passed, it would be identical to the Senate version and thus could go directly to the President for his signature. The catch is that bills considered under suspension of the rules require a two-thirds majority for passage instead of a simple majority. Going into Wednesday night, it wasn’t clear if there would be sufficient support for the Senate bill to meet that requirement.

During the floor debate, Gordon and other members expressed their support for the bill, if only reluctantly. “I see no realistic choice but to take the Senate bill because doing so would be preferable than taking no action at all,” Rep. Ralph Hall, (R-TX), ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, said. “While the bill before us today is far from perfect, it offers clear direction to an agency that is floundering and sets us up on the path towards maintaining America’s leadership in space.”

Others warned in dire—if hyperbolic—terms of the consequences of not passing the Senate bill. “If we do not pass this NASA authorization bill tonight, the Obama Administration will succeed in shutting down America’s manned space program by the end of the year,” claimed Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).

One exception to the debate was the Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), the chairperson of the space subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee. In an extended floor speech she spoke out forcefully against the bill. “In contrast to the supporters of the Senate bill who say that today they reluctantly support the Senate bill because it is better than doing nothing, I have no reluctance in telling you that this is a bad bill,” she said. “It will do damage to NASA if enacted and it should be voted down tonight.”

She was critical of several provisions of the Senate bill, including its HLV language, which calls for a vehicle with an initial capacity of 70 to 100 tons to LEO. “This bill contains provisions that will force NASA to build a rocket designed by senators and not by engineers,” she said. That rocket “will be too large to economically serve as a backup to commercial crew transport to the space station, and may also prove to be too small effectively undertake human missions beyond low Earth orbit.”

She criticized funding for “would-be” commercial crew and cargo providers authorized in the bill, and addressed concerns that without an authorization, massive layoffs would follow. “You will not be doing anything to stop layoffs tonight by voting for this Senate bill,” she said, noting that layoffs would be tied to funding provided in separate legislation.

In the end, though, her arguments were not persuasive enough to win over enough of her fellow legislators. The House passed the bill by a 304–118 margin, more than the two-thirds needed for passage. With the administration previously expressing support for the Senate bill, President Obama is expected to sign it into law within days. The Vision for Space Exploration, then, effectively died on the floor of the House when the vote on the NASA authorization bill closed at 11:36 pm Eastern time on September 29, 2010.

Transition to an uncertain future

In the days following the House vote, members of Congress, companies, and organizations all expressed support, to varying degrees, of the Senate bill, although different people saw different things in the bill. Utah’s congressional delegation, for example, saw the bill as a lifeline for ATK, the company that builds solid rocket motors in the state. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said the bill “takes Utah’s solid rocket industry off life support” since the HLV language in the bill “can only be realistically met through the use of solid rocket motors”. (In fact, the report accompanying the Senate bill explicitly calls for the use of shuttle-derived solid rocket motors for the HLV.) Companies like SpaceX, though, endorsed the bill’s support for commercial crew development. “Investing in commercial crew will build on NASA’s proud record of innovation and will encourage competition that will improve reliability, increase safety, and reduce costs,” SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk said in a statement.

“We’re thrilled to have this three-year authorization bill for NASA,” Garver said. “It’s certainly been a year that, in a time of transition, has been challenging.”

NASA leadership also endorsed the legislation, with administrator Charles Bolden taking the unusual step of issuing statements both before and after the bill’s passage in the House. In the statement issued the day of the vote, he said he was “hopeful” the bill “will receive strong support in the House and be sent onto the President for his signature”; in a similar statement the following day, he said he was “grateful” the bill made it through the House.

In a teleconference with reporters the day after the House vote, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver also expressed gratitude, and relief, that the bill had passed. “We’re thrilled to have this three-year authorization bill for NASA,” she said. “It’s certainly been a year that, in a time of transition, has been challenging.”

Passage of the authorization act, though, doesn’t mark the end of that time of transition, but only the end of the beginning phase. The next major milestone will come later this year, when appropriators follow up on the authorization bill with actual funding for NASA in fiscal year 2011. That fiscal year actually started on Friday, but as has been the case in recent years, Congress didn’t complete an appropriations bill in time and instead passed a “continuing resolution”, or CR, funding NASA—and the rest of the federal government—at 2010 levels through at least early December.

The CR constrains what NASA can do to implement elements of the plan enacted in the authorization bill. A provision of the final 2010 appropriations bill prevents NASA from cancelling any element of the Constellation program or starting a new one until a succeeding appropriations bill, with appropriate language, is passed; the CR doesn’t change that. “We are still living under the appropriations language that we will not be terminating any contracts and, of course, can’t have any entirely new starts,” Garver said in Thursday’s telecon. “Those changes will have to wait until an approved appropriations bill.”

The Republican Party’s proposal in its “Pledge to America” to roll back spending could cut the next NASA budget by up to $2 billion.

That appropriations bill—which won’t be taken up until after Congress returns in mid-November, after the midterm elections—offers an opportunity for legislators to potentially change some elements of just-passed authorization. In his statement conceding to the Senate version of the authorization bill, Gordon said he would continue to push for changes he sought in the bill, including funding for an additional shuttle mission and “overly prescriptive” language about the design of an HLV, with appropriators.

NASA also might seek some wiggle room in how it would develop an HLV. “I think the trade space continues to be open on what type of vehicle we will have,” she said, adding that they may get “some additional guidance” from appropriators. “There’s still a lot of ability on the part of NASA to work with our stakeholders on what exactly is included in our new heavy lift launch vehicle.”

Interestingly, one person in Congress who might support such an effort is Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who had been one of the sharpest critics of the administration’s new direction for NASA. “I remain concerned with the limiting direction set forth on the heavy lift rocket’s design. NASA must not deliver a rocket that is simply a shuttle without wings,” he said in a statement after the House passage of the authorization bill. “This would not represent a step forward for innovation or for the future of our space program.”

Beyond that, though, much bigger questions remain about the agency’s future. While there’s been very little argument about overall funding levels for NASA for 2011, with wide acceptance of the administration’s overall, or “topline”, proposal of exactly $19 billion, there’s still debate about whether this amount, and the modest growth in both the authorization bill and the administration’s proposal, is sufficient to support these programs going forward. The Augustine Committee, for example, sought an even larger increase (up to $3 billion a year) in its proposals. That may be a particular issue for an HLV, which will be constrained not just by budget but also by the design language in the bill as well as a goal of having the vehicle ready by the end of 2016.

Worse, that funding could be difficult to retain in the coming years as a climate of fiscal restraint (relatively speaking, at least) returns to Washington. With Republicans holding a good chance of taking control of the House after November’s elections, GOP House leadership unveiled a “Pledge to America” last month that calls for, among other items, plans to “roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” with only a few exceptions, none of which would include NASA. If enacted, that could slash NASA’s projected 2012 topline funding from just under $19.5 billion to as little as $17.4 billion, the agency’s budget in FY 2008.

That presages an even bigger long-term challenge: maintaining momentum for the plan for more than a few years. Recall that the Vision for Space Exploration got off to a strong start, winning congressional support without the same level of contentious debate as this latest plan. And, in fact, the Vision was, in the short term, a success: the near-term goals of the plan included completing the International Space Station by 2010 and then retiring the Space Shuttle. Now, in October 2010, the ISS is effectively complete and only two shuttle missions remain on the manifest (although the new authorization bill will allow NASA to fly one additional, final mission in mid-2011).

Should this latest effort fail, and given an increasingly-constrained fiscal environment the country likely faces over the long term, would NASA would get another chance for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit?

That short-term momentum could not be sustained, though. The conventional wisdom is that Constellation was underfunded and behind schedule, and thus unlikely to meet the goals of the Vision. But another factor, perhaps, is that the Vision’s mid-range plans—what NASA would do after completing the ISS but before returning to the Moon—seemed vague and not that interesting: sure, we’d be doing something to get ready to return to the Moon, besides operating the station (and even then perhaps only to 2015), but there was certainly an enthusiasm gap between NASA’s plans and popular interest.

The new plan faces the same problem, although in a different form. In the near term the agency has some direction for developing an HLV, supporting the creation of commercial crew transportation capabilities, and other technology development and robotic precursor missions. But there’s still that gap between the middle of the decade, when those initial problems are scheduled to be complete, and President Obama’s stated goal of a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. What will sustain that interest—and funding—over the next 15 years?

“The fact is that we have been trying to relive Apollo for the last 40 years,” Garver said in a speech earlier this year. “We have not been able to recreate that since, and I am not even sure that we would want to, given even that did not provide us with a sustained presence in space.” That assessment is accurate, as the record of failed efforts to recreate it—to which can now be added the Vision for Space Exploration and Constellation, unironically called “Apollo on steroids” by then-administrator Mike Griffin—demonstrates. The circumstances that led to Apollo, starting with the events of 53 years ago today, will likely never be recreated (much to the chagrin of those who have been trying to build up China as a Soviet-like competitor to the US in space; China, it seems, shows little interest in a sprint to the Moon, having just launched only its second robotic orbiter there, three years after the first.)

The administration sought a sharp break from the past with a new program that emphasized capabilities over destinations, but got a sharp rebuke from Congress. The result is an authorization bill that is a compromise: some support for commercial crew and technology development, but also for an HLV to be developed in the near-term rather than later, as originally proposed. Will that be sufficient to break the cycle of past failures, or is the agency’s new plan just as prone to the problems of lack of interest and funding that doomed previous human space exploration initiatives? Only time will tell for certain, but one wonders: should this latest effort fail, and given an increasingly-constrained fiscal environment the country likely faces over the long term, would NASA would get another chance for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit?